High runoff results in fall flooding from Pablo's aquifers

2011-09-20T22:00:00Z 2011-09-21T06:50:39Z High runoff results in fall flooding from Pablo's aquifersBy VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
September 20, 2011 10:00 pm  • 

PABLO - It's darned near October, and you know what that means.

Flood season is upon us.

OK, probably not where you are.

But here in Pablo, a variety of natural forces have combined to create a patchwork of puddles and ponds across several square miles - not to mention several flooded basements - two to three months after much of the rest of Montana was dealing with water, water, everywhere.

No river is overflowing its banks here, however. Instead, a shallow aquifer that has no place to go but up is bubbling to the surface many weeks after the summer sun melted the snowpack that is creating problems in Pablo now.

It's particularly serious in the 4-year-old Adeline Mathias Building, which houses Salish Kootenai College's Information Technology and Computer Science departments.

The basement, says Bob Fouty, chairman of the SKC Board of Directors, is home to much of the college's infrastructure, including IT equipment, transformers, boilers and a cooling system.

The basement has also been home to up to 8 and 10 inches of water since Aug. 18, when the flooding began, plus pumps and workmen trying to deal with the problem.

So it was that many people on campus were in on the joke last week when Corky Clairmont, in an otherwise solemn traditional blessing of the college's new science laboratory wing, thanked the Creator for "the abundance of water He has provided us lately."

Quickly, Clairmont also thanked Him for "the people trying to figure out what to do with it all."

"We've always known there were heavy veins of groundwater running through here," Fouty says, "but it's never been this high. I started at the college in 1982, and this is our first ‘oh, crap' moment."

Audrey Plouffe, SKC's chief financial officer, agrees.

"I've been here just as long, and we've never had anything like this," she says. "Our biggest water issue was a broken pipe."


What's going on?

Welcome to Pablo's Mud Creek aquifers.

Notice, that's plural.

Seth Makepeace, a hydrologist with the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, says Pablo's deep-water supply comes from a "very protected" sand and gravel aquifer that lies 350 to 500 feet below the surface.

But Pablo's groundwater aquifers are a stacked system, and there's a shallow perched aquifer that may be 150 feet deep near the Mission front, but trends right near the surface the closer you get to Pablo.

"This is wind-blown sand we're walking on," Makepeace says. "This is really an area that was sand dunes. Buildings that were built on the sand dunes are fine, but the ones built in the swales have water problems."

This fall's flooding event probably began with heavy precipitation in fall 2010 that saturated the ground, according to Makepeace.

The area, he adds, is home to peat moss soils north and west of the campus that "are not at all common, and are a strong indication that the shallow aquifer has been here for centuries."

Last fall's saturating rains were followed by the extra-large dumping of snow in the nearby Mission Mountains, which recharge both aquifers, over the winter.

When spring arrived, the snowpack in the Missions was 150 percent to 180 percent of normal.

That was followed by below-average temperatures in June and July, which delayed the snowmelt.

Around here, the groundwater doesn't flow straight down off the Mission Mountains. Instead, it travels in a northeast-to-southwest direction.

And, Makepeace says, the groundwater only travels a few feet a day.

"It's not like the Missoula aquifer, which is a fairly fast-moving aquifer," Makepeace says.

Put it all together - last year's rains, winter's snow, spring and summer's delayed snowmelt, and the characteristics of the Mud Creek aquifers and the Pablo area - and you've got floodlike conditions that began in August and will likely continue into October.


You can see evidence of it in many places. Lots of homes have standing water in their yards in low-lying areas, Makepeace says, and a dozen or so are dealing with flooded basements.

On the Salish Kootenai College campus, one end of a bowl-shaped area that houses nearby Two Eagle River School's football field has become a large marsh.

A couple of thousand yards away, a machine pumps up to 2,200 gallons of water a minute out of a treed area that was once a gravel pit, through hoses and into a natural wetlands area.

On the college's Silver Fox Golf Course, "water blisters" have pushed up the sod.

"We've never had that before," says Walter Fouty, who heads SKC's Auxiliary Services, and has been charged with solving the college's sudden "abundance of water."

"It's not a situation where you grab a book, and you get book solutions," Bob Fouty says. "We're having to come up with our own solutions."

They're putting up more concrete walls in the IT Department basement, and looking for effective sealers to apply to every "cold joint," where old concrete meets new and water finds a way in.

Transformers have been shut down and bypassed. Ruined sheetrock torn down. The standing water has been reduced to 2 inches.

But there are still places where you can see water bubbling into the basement like a spring.

"It is what it is," Bob Fouty says, "and we'll deal with it. If what we're doing doesn't work, we'll come up with a new plan."

And, he adds, they'll come up with different designs for future construction projects on a campus that's never seen anything like this before.

"Has this condition become the new norm?" he wonders. "That's something we can't predict."

But it's one they can prepare for, just in case.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.


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