The West weathers unusually wet times

  • Charles Lakovitch's home was burned to the ground

    Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette
 

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 floods.

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 tourists.

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 says.

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 dry.

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," adds Gangemi.

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, HCN assistant editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org