High Water – For Better or Worse

The high water on area rivers is getting a little old, isn’t it? As we reached the summer solstice last week, a big question was how much more high water will we get once get warm weather starts melting the high mountain snowpack.

Another question is how fish are doing during the sustained high water.

According to an extensive report recently posted to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website, the fish are doing just fine, thank you. FWP’s Fisheries Bureau chief, Bruce Rich notes, “Fish are well adapted to survive flooding, though they can sometimes be stranded when high water recedes, depending on where they took refuge.”

Mark Lere, a Future Fisheries program coordinator adds, “In high water like we’re seeing this year, fish generally move to the margins of the river for refuge—to backwater areas, or warmer, less turbid side channels or tributaries.” As rivers go over their banks, some fish may move out into the floodplain, and then return to the backwaters and side channels when waters finally recede.

The high waters also give rivers and stream a good cleaning, leaving clean gravels for future fish spawning periods. As waters recede, and we have to have confidence that they will, someday, go down, some fish may get stranded in some backwater channels, though overall, the high waters will benefit fish in the long run.

The prairie streams of eastern Montana have also been having high waters and there are interesting things happening, especially with an endangered fish, the pallid sturgeon.

Biologists have been tracking radio-tagged pallid sturgeon and have found several sturgeon have moved up from the Fort Peck Reservoir and up the Milk River, including one male pallid sturgeon that has traveled upstream 36 river miles, the farthest they have documented the species. They have also located a mature female pallid sturgeon in the Milk River, which means there’s a possibility of the fish spawning in the Milk River, something that hasn’t happened for many years.

2010 was another high water year and FWP documented the best production of paddlefish in the Milk River and shovelnose sturgeon in the Missouri River in the last 11 years.

The high waters will have other effects, including some that we may not appreciate. A week ago we made trips to Missoula and to Miles City, and on the Clark Fork River, plus crossing the three forks of the Missouri, along with the Yellowstone, Bighorn and Tongue Rivers, we could see floodwaters spread out across riparian areas. When the waters eventually recede there will be pools of stagnant water virtually everywhere along the floodplains, and pools of stagnant water combined with warm summer temperatures translate to mosquitoes. There will be so many mosquitoes in the flooded areas we’ll have to come up with new terminology to describe the record swarms of those bugs we love to hate.

We might also note that the prairie pothole areas of northern Montana and North Dakota are likely to have fantastic waterfowl production this summer. We’re going to have a lot of ducks this fall. Those ducks, incidentally, will eat a lot of mosquito larvae, so go ducks!

We’re also closely following the flood in Minot, North Dakota, where our son, Kevin, and his family live.

I reported earlier on heavy rains and flooding when we were there during the Memorial Day weekend. At that time, the floodwaters on the Souris (Mouse) River crested at levels just below the flood of 1969. Levees held and residents began to breathe a little easier, even though they expected rural areas to stay under water into July.

On June 19, there were torrential rainstorms in southern Saskatchewan and suddenly new flood projections came out. In 1969 the river reached a level of 1554.5 feet above sea level. The record flood level happened in 1881 when the river reached 1558 feet. Hydrologists predicted a new record flood level of 1563 feet.

Kevin’s home is on high ground, thankfully. Nevertheless, we can’t avoid worrying about the 10,000 people who left their homes when water went over the dikes last Wednesday.

Spring flooding, and a look back at some historic Montana floods

Mother Nature is, as usual, calling the shots this spring.

In the Mississippi River basin, Ol’ Man River is at its highest levels since the record floods of 1927. On the other hand, Texas and Oklahoma are in a severe drought and they’d like to have some of that water. Joplin, Missouri is cleaning-up following a devastating tornado last week, a storm that killed 116 people (at last count) and injured hundreds more.

Here in Montana people in river valleys are looking nervously at rising waters and wondering how high waters will rise. We have prime conditions for severe flooding this year, with a well above average snowpack and a cold spring that has kept that snowpack in place.

Last week there was flooding in eastern Montana, closing I-90 at Hardin, due to heavy rains that sent creeks over their banks., converging near the Little Bighorn Battlefield.

In western Montana, the big question is whether we’ll have either a heat wave or heavy rains to send all that snowpack down the mountains in one big surge of water.

Let’s take a look back at some historic Montana floods.

On June 19, 1938, a flash flood on Custer Creek near Terry, Montana, washed out a railroad bridge across the creek. When the Northern Pacific Olympic Special came through in the middle of the night, it crashed into the waters. 46 people were killed and many more were injured.

In 1997, Livingston experienced what was considered a 100-year flood in a scenario similar to this year. The mountains in the area had a snowpack of 200 percent of normal. In mid-May there was a heat wave with temps in the 80s, and that was followed by heavy rain.

Northwest Montana, on both sides of the Continental Divide, experienced what is considered Montana’s flood of the 20th Century in June 1964. Rainstorms on June 8 – 10 dumped as much as 14 inches of rain along the Divide in a 36 hour period, and streams that were already running high with snowmelt surged with water. Gibson Dam, on the upper Sun River, overflowed and floodwaters took out homes, roads and bridges all the way to Great Falls.

Farther north along the Divide, flooding on the Teton and Marias river systems destroyed an irrigation dam near Dupuyer, and caused massive damage on Blackfeet reservation communities of Heart Butte and Browning. In Glacier National Park, roads washed out, isolating Many Glacier hotel from Babb.

West of the Divide, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River went wild. The Flathead River at Columbia Falls crested at over 12 feet above flood stage. Areas up to a mile from the river were under four feet of water. Some 20,000 acres and several hundred homes along the Flathead River were flooded.

In a 2007 article in the Daily InterLake of Kalispell, reporter Heidi Gaiser noted one area that was hard hit in 1964, the community of Evergreen, along U.S. 2 northeast of Kalispell. Evergreen now has extensive commercial development in areas that went under water in 1964. As for possibilities of future flooding, Flathead County planner Tracy Sears-Tull said in that report, “It’s not a matter of if, but when it will happen.”

In all, the 1964 floods caused 30 deaths and inundated 20 percent of Montana’s surface area, which is a lot of real estate.

Flooding is, of course, a natural event. Floods cause problems when we humans encroach onto flood plains and build structures. Catastrophic flooding happens when dams fail, with the failure of the Teton River Dam in southeastern Idaho in 1976 as a classic example of dam failure, with consequent loss of life and property.

There are benefits to flooding, in that the waters enrich the soil over the floodplain, adding nutrients and organic matter, plus recharging aquifers. We can look at ancient Egypt where an entire civilization grew up and flourished, totally dependent on the benefits of the annual flooding of the Nile River.

Just the same, I’ll be looking forward to a month from now when waters recede and trout are taking dry flies.