With a huge snowpack in the high country threatening severe floods this spring, Westerners prepared for the worst. They beefed up dikes and levees and stockpiled sandbags in anticipation of the big melt (HCN, 5/22/97). But for most, the worst never came.
Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist with
the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman, Mont., says
periodic cold snaps kept the snow from all melting at once. Also,
because the snow was so deep this winter, it insulated the ground,
keeping it from freezing; so when the high country melted off, the
soil absorbed a lot of the runoff and tempered spring
Kaiser adds that though the rivers were
higher than last year, they did less damage. "We would have had a
whole lot more wet people, had we not had a lot of early
preparedness," he says.
Still, some areas got
soaked. The mild spring made for a drawn-out flood season in
northern Idaho and eastern Washington, where five counties were
declared federal disaster areas. The St. Joe and Pend Oreille
rivers were above flood stage for more than a month, according to
Brian Avery, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in
Spokane (HCN, 5/12/97).
The Columbia River is
still roaring, as snowmelt from Canada feeds its northern
tributaries. "The salmon should appreciate it," says Chris Burke, a
meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Campers
in Washington's Confluence State Park were not as appreciative,
however, when the river rose two feet in less than an hour, sending
them running for high ground.
It will be a few
weeks before things dry out around the Tetons, where a mudslide
closed Highway 89 between Alpine and Jackson, Wyo., for almost a
month. At last report, road crews had opened one lane of the road -
a major artery into Jackson for commuters and
West of the Tetons, the Blackfoot,
Idaho, Morning News reported fish jumping in potato fields. The
Snake River flooded 150 homes, 25,000 acres of farmland and a
section of I-15 in June. Help from volunteers, church groups and
the National Guard prevented even more damage, says Rick Just with
the Blackfoot Emergency Operation Center. "We can't keep Band-Aids
in stock, there are so many blisters on hands," he
Ironically, says Just, "One of our biggest
problems up here is lack of water." Many irrigation canals in the
Teton Valley washed out, leaving potatoes, wheat and hay
High water doesn't always mean devastation,
says John Gangemi of Whitefish, Mont., a biologist with the
national boating group American Whitewater. Flooding plays a vital
role in restoring river systems, he says, by recharging groundwater
and creating habitat for insects, amphibians and fish. In Montana
and the Dakotas, for example, floods have refilled potholes that
serve as nesting grounds for ducks.
"Some of the
richest soil we have in the world is deposited river sediments,"
While much of the West enjoys dry
weather for a change, the Southwest has been too dry, says Tom
Zickus, with the National Weather Service in Phoenix. Small towns
and stock ponds are already feeling the pinch of a second year of
drought, he says, and cities will have to pump more water from the
ground than in past years. "You're looking in the wrong state for
floods," he says. "We're the antithesis of Idaho."
* Greg Hanscom,