As Rivers Swell, Safety Concerns Rise

By Beacon Staff

Rivers across Northwest Montana continue to swell after this week’s temperatures spiked 20 degrees above normal, raising concerns about flooding and recreational safety as the bustling summer season approaches.

With local temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, the National Weather Service announced May 9 the Yaak River near Libby could exceed flood stage because of rapid runoff in the Kootenai drainage. The Flathead River at Columbia Falls and the North Fork were also at risk of reaching flood levels over the weekend.

A cold front was expected to arrive next week, which could slow snowmelt in the upper elevations and abate flood problems, but the risk is expected to remain for the next two weeks, according to the NWS.

The sudden surge of spring runoff is ill timed, as it appears to be coinciding with the unofficial start to summer, Memorial Day weekend, when droves of people enjoy boating, fishing or swimming on the vast number of local rivers and lakes.

Enforcement and recreation officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are urging recreationists to be vigilant on the water by taking safety precautions and being mindful of state regulations, including lifejacket requirements and mandatory stops at aquatic invasive species check stations.

For the second year in a row in 2012, there were 11 fatalities on Montana waterways. A majority of those occurred in this corner of the state and on non-motorized boats, like rafts and kayaks, according to FWP.

Lifejackets are the most proven safety measure, but they’re often the most overlooked.

Jonathan Obst, a Region One warden sergeant, said absent lifejackets lead to the most citations on local rivers and lakes. A ticket for not having a lifejacket can exceed $65. Children under 12 years old are required to wear a lifejacket at all times on the water, according to state law, and any person on a vessel in the water is required to have a lifejacket present, including users of stand-up paddleboards.

Although lifejackets cannot guarantee safety, wearing a personal flotation device that fits correctly and works properly can be a lifesaver, said Liz Lodman, boating education coordinator for FWP.

“We have such great rivers and lakes in Montana. We’ve got all kinds of places where we can go,” she said.

But dangerous situations — like logjams or fallen trees in the water — can arise and present significant threats on any waterway, Lodman said. There can also be cold water temperatures and fast, dangerous currents during runoff.

Lodman encourages recreationists to take preemptive steps, such as checking riverflows and weather forecasts and take advantage of river rescue courses or other training opportunities.

Another safety issue is alcohol use. Obst said wardens are seeing a rising prevalence of intoxication and underage drinking on the water.

Another common citation stems from boats disobeying the “No Wake” zone within 200 feet of shorelines, Obst said.

Wardens also frequently run across motorized boats that are not registered or have expired validation licenses, or that don’t have proper lights.

Aquatic invasive species, like zebra mussels, have become one of the more serious threats in Montana. State, federal and tribal managers have established mandatory inspection stations. Last summer check stops and roving crews operated at several locations where vehicles with boats were required by state law to stop and undergo an inspection.

FWP officials are stressing the importance of stopping at all watercraft inspection stations. Boats that are clean, drained and dry will help keep the inspection process quick and painless, according to the FWP. Those who fail to stop can be cited, and any boat found with aquatic invasive species can be leveled a severe fine.

“I know it sounds like a pain for some people, but we’re really trying to keep out the aquatic invasive species,” Obst said. “In a heartbeat, once they get into Flathead Lake, they’re impossible to get out. And it will kill the lake.”

For more information on Montana’s boating regulations, visit fwp.mt.gov/recreation/regulations/boating/.

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