Living On The Edge Of Disaster

I prepared a different page for this week, but changed my mind after seeing the flooding in Southwest Montana over the weekend. The SC is concerned with life in Montana and living in the great outdoors. The current flood situation is worth talking about, worth telling about. This year is tragic, because of how we interact with the water, with the earth, with each other. Many of those downstream from Montana have grown lax about the abiding strength of Mother Nature. Surely they know that a heavy-snow winter translates into a heavy run-off in the Spring. Don’t they??

So you know, I will try to always give you a new post on Mondays. Maybe make those damned Mondays better?? Snort… probably not. But I’ll try.

The Jefferson River
This is a river (The Jefferson) Lewis and Clark were on August 3rd, back in 1805. They were in the water, pulling their boats upstream… See that snowpack, at 8500 feet and above? That still has to melt and come down, right into this river. We’re looking East, at the northern end of the Tobacco Root Mountains.

Saw the most flooded Montana land I’ve ever seen… dramatic, and sad. The entire Boulder Valley, from Boulder south to Whitehall, has flooded farm lands on both sides of the river. There were signs that the water had recently been over the highway I took. Then, south to Cardwell, which is halfway under water. Whitehall and Cardwell are both taking it on the chin. Pipestone Creek, which runs east out of Pipestone Pass, is a creek which has become a river. It alone has flooded part of Whitehall, and when it finally connects with the already-flooding Jefferson… well. I saw no homes in Cardwell flooded, just one barn. There is farm equipment, some of it, completely under water, and massive acres of grazing land are now lakes. If the folks along the Missouri saw what I saw last night, they’d drop their sandbags and flee. It’s really very sad. Flooding (and ice gorges, for that matter) are so quietly deadly. They just slowly slip over their banks and silently take over everything in their path, and destroy it. And so curious… nature doesn’t know it’s doing anything destructive, it’s just doing what it does every so often. It is we who put ourselves in harm’s way.

What Cardwell, Montana, looks like right now
A ranch in Cardwell, Montana. Needed a wide-angle lens, this is a big lake, made by the flooding Jefferson River. Remember, it hasn’t even gotten to the Missouri yet…

It doesn’t take a physicist to look at the lay of our land and see where the water has been, and where it can be again. To Cardwell’s credit, the people there seem to get it. Their homes and outbuildings are mostly on higher ground, and they’ve left room to move their stock to higher ground as well. Am not sure what all that water will do to their grazing land, however. Maybe nothing… maybe simply hydrate it extremely well… the water’s muddy, however, and there will be silt & crap…

Today I went back along the Jefferson River and up into the Boulder Valley to take a few pictures for you. The snow is mostly gone now, up to around 8500 feet. Above that, however, there’s still a ton of snow. Montana has a lot of peaks over 9500 feet. The eight mountain ranges within 50 miles of Virginia City still have heavy snow at 9000 feet. Why is there still so much snow up there if it’s warming down below? The Answer… it’s not warming that much down below yet. Our daytime temps right now, June 13th, are around 55 degrees, and down to between 35 and 39 degrees at night. Figure there’s a twenty degree difference between Virginia City- at 5800 feet – and Baldy Mountain, just south of us, at 9500 feet. If it’s only getting to 35 degrees up there during the day, the snow’s not going to melt much. Worse, The Forest Service estimates that these ranges got between two and seven times as much snow as they get in a normal winter. Worse yet, it was raining all across Southwest Montana today on my drive.

Water's Way Too High
Last July, I rode under this bridge on a rubber raft with loads of headroom. Not so now…

On the one nice day we had here two weeks ago, I threw on my cut-off jeans and an old T-shirt and rode my 4-wheeler up the Alder Gulch road 8 miles to the base of Baldy Mountain. I took a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a sweatshirt with me, just in case. And I needed them. You can’t believe the difference in temperature that 3000 feet makes. My hands, legs and nose got cold up there, and I had to run around 5-10 miles an hour, just to stay comfortable. Any faster started a wind-chill effect that was freezing me. All that just 20 minutes from town… the difference is amazing.

Late Spring Snowpack
This is Baldy Mountain, 8 miles south of my cabin in Virginia City, Montana. Pic taken June 2nd, 2011. All that snow will melt, feed into Alder Creek, and ultimately into the Jefferson River. Keep in mind that the Jeff is only one of three major rivers which run together to form the confluence of the Missouri. The Madison, and the Gallatin, are also at flood stage right now.

Cattle Stalls
This family’s corrals are totally under, and the water is not scheduled to dissipate for at least another week, which will damage, and perhaps rot & ruin, the corrals in the water. I know… at least it’s not their home. Taken in Cardwell, Montana, along the Jeff…

Montanans don’t have as many possibilities for natural disasters as the rest of you down below. We don’t have tornadoes, volcanoes or tsunami, We do have forest fires and earthquakes every so often. But even when we have the  occasional year of snow run-off flooding, it’s still nothing like what happens to the cities and ranches east of us. This Spring our governor has asked The President to make parts of Montana a disaster area already. Several neighborhoods in Missoula are underwater, and virtually every river in the state is at flood stage or above, and are expected to remain there for a least another week. Is anyone out there translating this information into a usable plan for disaster avoidance in North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri?? If not, it’s probably too late.

Dakotas, we know that parts of you are already flooded. And it hurts, to have to tell you that we’re about to send more water in the Missouri River to you than you might have ever seen before. The several lakes and dams in our state cannot begin to tame the Missouri at this point. Already some of our smaller bridges are closed and in danger of flooding, or collapsing. I truly hope the officials across your states are aware of this, and are prepping you. The Missouri is going to be raging by the time it gets to the North Dakota border, and that happens to be right where the swollen Yellowstone River joins it. This is a horrible time to live downstream. I hope you all survive it.

Steve Hulse

(CNN) — (6/13/11) A 50-foot-wide breach occurred Monday in a levee on the Missouri River near the Iowa-Missouri border, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The National Weather Service said the flooding could affect Interstate 29 and the town of Hamburg, Iowa. It was too early to determine the cause of the breach, the Corps said. But it follows weeks of high flows and record releases from dams in Montana and the Dakotas. Heavy rains and snow pack runoff could result in near-record flooding along parts of the Missouri this year, officials have said. This year’s flooding is putting levees to the test along much of the 1,700 miles of the Missouri. Temporary levees are being built in several locations.

For more on the “Missouri Breaks,” click here.

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