Much of western Montana was put under a flood warning on Monday after water generated from rain storms and higher-than-average snow pack barreled into the region’s major rivers.
The Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Flathead rivers were at-or-near minor flood stage as of Monday afternoon. Despite the flood danger, officials said no structures in Missoula County are at risk, and there is a chance the worst of the surge has passed.
One exception is the Flathead River between Glacier National Park and Bigfork, which is expected to stay in flood stage through the week after snow storms blanket higher elevation mountains.
The weather service predicted snow above 5,000 feet along stretches of the Continental Divide through Tuesday night. Above 6,000 feet, more than 12 inches of snow is projected.
Brian Heino, sheriff of Flathead County, said concerns from minor flooding are mostly to recreation sites, sudden erosion of the river banks and possible undercutting of roads near water. The river, measured at 14 feet in Columbia Falls, could rise by a foot in the coming days.
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“Please be cautious around rivers, banks can be undercut, and please do not drive through water on roads,” Heino said. He added that roughly six inches of moving water can lift a vehicle off of the pavement.
The Bitterroot, which entered flood stage Saturday evening, sat at minor flood stage with 11 feet of depth near the south Missoula U.S. Geological Service Station. The National Weather Service predicted the river will stay roughly the same until Tuesday afternoon.
Eric Hoover with Ravalli County Emergency Office said the situation has improved Monday as less rainfall than predicted fell in the valley.
“We’re actually looking good now,” Hoover said, pointing out that most of the higher streams monitored for height are out of flood stage. He said the valley is still two weeks behind from normal, and rain or snow could return in the mountains.
Flooding has overrun some small canyon roads along the Bitterroot front. The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office reported Sunday that Rock Creek near Lake Como is over its banks. Lake Como is also expected to spill over its dam spillway, although that’s not likely to cause damage.
The confluence of the Bitterroot and the Clark Fork at Tower Street in the Orchard Homes area has minor flooding on roads and a public park.
“The impacts we are seeing right now are pretty typical impacts,” said Adrienne Beck, director of Missoula County Emergency response. “As of now there is no infrastructure threatened or homes threatened.”
The Clark Fork entered flood stage on Sunday, but the river just crested into the high water mark, and experts predicted the water will drop soon.
“Most places, especially Missoula, have lost most of their snow,” said Jeff Kitsmiller, meteorologist at the National Weather Service. Much of the river surge has come from the increased rain. Missoula proper soaked in 1.5 inches of rain last week. More than three inches have fallen in spots around Flathead County in the last three days.
By Thursday, temperatures could easily reach the 80’s under clear and sunny skies. Kitsmiller said people should be cautious of recreating by the river, even when conditions appear to be improving.
“Even though it is not exceptional, people gravitate towards water when it’s hot, and right now it is running fast and cold,” Kitsmiller said. “It only takes a few minutes to develop hypothermia.”
Closer to the Continental Divide, Jim Merrifield, Butte-Silver Bow’s director of emergency management, said he has received no reports of flooding in the county and so far, nobody has “raised red flags” about flooding threats.
Still, he said, people can pick up and bag sand for no cost at the county complex off of Beef Trail Road on the west side of Butte and at the Fire Department in Melrose.
Erick Brittain, fire chief in Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, said early Monday afternoon that flooding of Warm Springs Creek was not yet an issue.
“So far, so good,” he said. “We’re good for now.”
Ruth Koehler, coordinator of Powell County’s Department of Emergency Management, said Monday afternoon that significant creeks and rivers in Powell County were not causing flooding problems. The rivers included portions of the upper Clark Fork and the Little Blackfoot. Cottonwood Creek, which has flooded in years past, seemed OK, she said.
“Everything seems to be fine here, so far,” Koehler said.
The Big Hole and Jefferson rivers are in action stages with water right up to the edge of the river bank in some areas. According to National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Ludwig, those two rivers will peak today and are not expected to flood.
“(The Big Hole) is about where we expect it to crest,” Ludwig said. “Maybe some minor fluctuations, but it will probably crest today; gradually lower a little bit through the day tomorrow and Wednesday; and as we get warmer this weekend the river may come back up.”
Those recreating on the river should be aware of flows, debris and any other safety hazards.
“(The rivers) are running a little bit higher and faster than normal for this time of year,” said Jim Brusda, lead meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Great Falls. “So small trees can be floating down, and that’s just a natural process because trees fall over along the riverbanks. With the river being up a little bit higher, it washes those downstream.”
An action stage is one step away from flood stage. Even with the extra runoff expected later in the week as temperatures climb, the Big Hole and Jefferson are not expected to surpass action stage.
The Montana Standard contributed to this story.
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