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God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise

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The Clark Fork River, west of Cabinet Gorge Dam. Photo by Corey Vogel The Clark Fork River, west of Cabinet Gorge Dam. Photo by Corey Vogel

La Nina fades, leaving behind a LOT of moisture

La Nina, I believe, got her name by accident. This weather phenomenon of colder surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which brings us colder, wetter winters here in the Pacific Northwest, is the opposite of El Nino. El Nino’s warmer ocean temperatures were named “the little boy,” or “Christ child” as they were generally observed around Christmastime. If a pattern is not the “little boy,” then it must be “the little girl.”

And a snotty little girl she’s been this year of the winter-that-never-ends. Though her effect is fading as we move out of this period, she’s left a legacy that those of us in North Idaho and western Montana (and elsewhere, of course) must deal with: water. Lots and lots of water.

Up in the high country, that water is mostly still trapped in the form of snow, which is a saving grace right now with rivers and creeks running high. As much as we all might long for warm weather, a slow warming is what we need, as a long period of hotter weather would melt the snow much more quickly than our waterways—and we ourselves—might find comfortable. 

Even slow melting may cause us problems. As this issue of the River Journal is going to press, Lake Pend Oreille water levels are within two feet of flood stage—current predictions suggest we’ll reach an action stage around 5 pm on June 8.

According to the National Weather Service, “action stage” is the point when mitigation in anticipation of future flooding needs to take place.

Regardless of the official stage, no one in this area is waiting—they’re taking action now.

Bob Howard, director of Emergency Management for Bonner County, has ordered tens of thousands of sand bags for the area. Residents can pick up bags and fill them with sand at their local fire stations. (In the Clark Fork area, bags and sand are available at the transfer station right outside of town.) Although no one is going to turn you away, residents are asked to get sand and bags from their local stations, so officials can keep an eye on where the greatest perceived needs are, and be prepared for further action.

Lakeshore residents are weighting down docks, and many in areas where water is rising are moving irreplaceable belongings to higher levels.

How necessary is this? No one really knows—predicting the weather is an iffy thing at the best of times, and for weather more than a few days out, you might just as well toss a dart at a series of choices.

Jared Eggleston did an interesting study on television weather forecasts in the Kansas City area (you can read about it here: http://tinyurl.com/44ar8n2). With rain, for example, he wrote, “For all days beyond the next day out, viewers would be better off flipping a coin to predict rainfall than trusting the stations on days where rain was possible. Oddly, N.O.A.A. — which had been one of the better forecasters in our other evaluations — was the worst in this one, especially when predicting three days out and beyond.”

A lot of the discussion you hear locally will focus around lake levels in Pend Oreille, whereas residents might well be more concerned with what’s happening in the creek, stream or river somewhat closer to their home. Exact water levels in most of these bodies are unknown, as very few area waterways are equipped with measuring gauges, but lake levels matter even here. That’s because once the lake reaches its flood stage, water from all those creeks, streams and rivers will no longer flow as freely into the lake, and may begin to back up.

To keep an eye on the lake level, you can visit the National Weather Service website. Go to www.weather.gov/spokane and, from the column to the left on that page, choose Rivers & Lakes AHPS. This will bring up a map of area hydrographs. Click on the square labeled “Hope” for reports on Lake Pend Oreille. Also available are hydrographs for Bonners Ferry, Albeni Falls Dam, the Yaak and, for our friends to the south, Coeur d’Alene and Cataldo.

The Army Corps of Engineers has information available for the Clark Fork and Flathead Rivers here: http://tinyurl.com/3nw999p. As we go to press, discharge at Cabinet Gorge Dam is running about 80,000 cubic feet per second (down from a high of 100,000 last week) with Noxon Rapids Dam a little lower.

For other rivers, creeks and streams near where you live, use your eyeballs. If you’re somewhat new to the area, now is a good time to get out and meet your neighbors; they’ll be able to tell you where, historically, the ‘low spots’ have been found that are likely to flood.

Learn about where you live. What are your passageways into and out of town? Many areas are surprisingly land-locked, with little or no access should the major road close for any reason; not just flooding, as water movement can trigger rockfalls and mudslides as well. Know where you will go if for any reason you need to evacuate.

Take the time to be neighborly. Are there people in your area who might find it difficult to evacuate quickly? Are there children at home after school alone whose parents are working? Are there elderly people who might need help with transportation? Once you are prepared to take action if needed, think about lending a hand to those in your community who might need the help.

And don’t drive through high water on the road. Seriously. As little as a foot of water can actually move a vehicle. Should flooding occur, our emergency personnel will be busy enough without spending time rescuing those foolish enough to attempt to ford high water on the roads.

Each season brings its own unique challenges to the area, from flood season to fire season to “good god will this winter never end?” A little bit of preparation now can go a long way toward making these challenges easier to overcome.

There’s still a lot of snow in the mountains that will be melting its way into the lake. The Bear Mountain Snotel site, at 5,400 feet on the Idaho/Montana border just off Rattle Creek, northeast of Clark Fork, is registering a snow/water equivalent of 67 inches. Mosquito Ridge (5,200 feet, located in the Green Monarchs southwest of Clark Fork) is at 42.2 inches snow/water equivalent. Schweitzer Basin is registering 61 snow/water equivalent inches; that’s 131 inches snow depth, by the way. (Idaho Snotel data can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/29h534).

There is also, likely, more water on the way. Despite the earlier caveat to weather predictability, all signs say June and even July will likely be cooler and wetter than normal. High water and the potential for flooding is expected as least through mid-June, and maybe even longer.

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Author info

Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, Lake Pend Oreille, Cabinet Gorge Dam, Clark Fork River, weather, La Nina, Corey Vogel, flooding, flood stage, weather forecasting, Albeni Falls Dam, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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