With snowpack at the highest levels since 1997 in certain areas of the Flathead and spring flooding expected, weather and county officials are advising valley residents to stay alert and prepared as the weather warms.
“What we’re seeing right now is snowpack numbers that are much above average in most of the Flathead Basin now,” Ray Nickless of the National Weather Service in Missoula said. “The Flathead Basin is going to see its fair share of either flooding from the smallish creeks and close to flooding on the main (river) stems.”
According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Flathead’s snowpack was 123 percent of the average at the beginning of March, and 175 percent of last year’s levels.
Though there is not as much snow overall as there was in 1997, Nickless said the areas with the most snowpack, such as Ashley Creek and the Swan Mountains, are expected to reach flood levels on snowmelt alone.
Creeks running down from the Swan through Creston and Bigfork should be pushed above flood levels, Nickless said, since areas such as Noisy Basin still have so much snow. Noisy Basin is at 151 percent of the average levels, he said, which equals about 59 inches of water waiting to melt versus the usual 39 inches.
“Those small streams coming out of the Swan will flood,” Nickless said, noting that the high water levels could affect the surrounding low-lying land.
Ashley Creek has its highest snowpack numbers since the major winter of 1997, Nickless said, and could flood just on snowmelt alone.
As for the Flathead River, Nickless expects the Middle, North and South forks to run high, close to flood levels. Inflow to the Hungry Horse Reservoir is expected to be 130 to 150 percent of the average.
Spring precipitation will also play a role in potential flooding, Nickless said.
“Whether it actually exceeds the flood level may depend on if you get rain mixed in,” he said.
The high water levels in 1997 were largely due to snowmelt and not rain, Nickless noted, adding that if May and June bring hefty showers, the Flathead’s stems could hit flood levels.
The Whitefish and Stillwater rivers should also be running high, and Nickless expects flooding on the Fisher and Yaak rivers in Lincoln County. The Mission Mountains also have snowpack approaching 1997 levels.
Nickless said anyone whose property flooded in 1997 would likely see water again.
With that in mind, Bailey Minnich of the Flathead County Planning Department said anyone interested in flood insurance should buy it sooner rather than later.
“It can take up to 30 days for a policy to go into effect,” Minnich said. “If they wait too late they might have a policy but it won’t be active.”
Flood insurance is not mandated by state law like car insurance is, though some landlords require it of their tenants. Rates are partially determined by a parcel’s location in a floodplain.
Interested parties can visit the planning office at its Kalispell location to look at current and historic floodplain maps and find out more information, Minnich said.
Other Flathead County officials began preparing for potential flooding months ago, according to Cindy Mullaney, deputy director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services.
Mullaney said Flathead residents should take three approaches when considering potential flooding: staying informed; knowing what the risks are; and keeping themselves and their families prepared in case evacuations are necessary.
Part of this emergency preparation includes a 72-hour kit, Mullaney said, which means having enough food, water and other necessities to survive for three days. For more information on 72-hour kits, visit www.ready.gov.
“It’s kind of a wait-and-see situation,” Mullaney said. “If I were to recommend some actions to take I would … think about an evacuation plan.”
OES has already discussed potential evacuations with the sheriff’s office and the commissioners, Mullaney said, and has a Northwest Montana Instant Management Team ready to tackle any flood-related incident.
If there are mandatory evacuations, the American Red Cross has already identified areas throughout the county that will house emergency shelters.
The county will pay particular attention to low-lying areas near rivers and tributaries as the snowpack begins to melt, Mullaney said. OES Director Scott Sampey said Evergreen, with its high groundwater table, is typically where the county sees its first symptoms of flooding.
Residents can keep an eye on stream-flow levels at NWS’ online hydrology page, which can be seen at www.wrh.noaa.gov/mso/hydrology.
The National Weather Service and OES will host a public meeting on April 6 in Kalispell to discuss spring flooding. Valley residents will have a chance to ask questions about snowpack, La Niña weather patterns and other flood-related issues.
The meeting begins at 3 p.m. at OES headquarters at 625 Timberwolf Parkway in Kalispell.
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