The abundant winter that caused near-record snowpack across Montana is making a troublesome transition to spring. Rapid snowmelt is leading to widespread flooding and ice jams in rivers and streams, prompting the governor to seek a presidential disaster declaration.
As seasonal temperatures begin melting unusually high levels of snow in the mountains, Gov. Steve Bullock last week asked the White House to issue a federal disaster declaration for Montana. The declaration would provide additional resources for cleanup and recovery from worsening flooding that is already damaging roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.
Early last month, Bullock declared a state of emergency and since then 15 counties, including Lake, Lincoln and Sanders, have declared an emergency or disaster. The Blackfeet, Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations have also sought assistance.
“Over the last few weeks, many communities have seen the devastating impacts of severe flooding,” Bullock stated. “While we continue to work with county and municipal governments to manage the impacts from flooding, a federal declaration would provide additional support to ensure Montana residents are able to quickly recover.”
Snowpack levels are significantly higher than normal in the mountains surrounding the Flathead Valley, but there have not been any issues yet.
“The snowpack is high of course but it’s all just strictly dependent upon the weather,” said Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry, who also serves as the director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services. “Some of the smaller creeks are starting to come up. It’s a little early for us to guess what’s going to happen.”
The snowpack levels across Montana are the second highest since records were first compiled over three decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Bozeman.
Early April is considered the turning point from snow accumulation to snowmelt and eventually spring runoff, which historically begins in May.
On April 1, the state’s overall snowpack was 143 percent of normal and 156 percent of last April. The snowpack level was at 22.2 inches of snow water equivalent, nearly two inches more than the amount in 2011, when significant flooding swept across the state. But officials are not drawing many comparisons to 2011 because three years ago brought several heavy rainstorms and a cooler than normal spring that contributed to problematic runoff, which does not appear to be the situation this year, according to the NRCS.
“Currently there are no indications of weather that will cause the events seen in 2011,” NRCS scientists stated in their latest monthly water supply outlook report. “Regardless, snowpack and stream flow runoff needs to be closely monitored for the remainder of this spring until the majority of mountain snow has run into the rivers of Montana.”
The Flathead River Basin, which experienced a barrage of storms in March, stands at 138 percent of normal, according to the NRCS. The Kootenai basin was at 122 percent.
The Flathead River saw roughly 216 percent of average precipitation in March and the Kootenai experienced 196 percent of average. The reservoir storage in Lake Koocanusa is 169 percent of average and 128 percent of last year. Flathead Lake is 116 percent of average and 93 percent of last year.
The NRCS’s streamflow forecast for April through July shows the Flathead River Basin to be 123 percent of normal and 112 percent of last year. The Kootenai is expected to reach 107 percent of normal and 89 percent of last year.
So far April has seen slightly above average temperatures of 42 degrees, nearly 1 degree warmer than normal, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters are predicting daytime temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees in Kalispell throughout April with a strong potential for persistent rain.
State and federal emergency management officials are also urging residents to buy flood insurance now as a preemptive measure so that protection will be in place by early May. There is a 30-day waiting period from the time an insurance policy is written and purchased until the policy goes into effect.
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