The Clark Fork River is closed to the public from the Reserve Street Bridge to the Kona Bridge due to dangers posed by downed power lines across the river and high water full of hazardous debris.
The power lines across the river, from Tower Street to Schmidt Road, are hanging in the river, according to Butch Larcombe, an information officer with Northwestern Energy. They are not live.
"We de-energized that line a couple of days ago when we knew it would be in the flood waters," Larcombe said. "We knew there was enough current that there could be eroding at the base of the pole."
The downed line didn't disrupt service to Northwestern Energy customers because they were able to reroute the power. However, it is off in some areas, as is natural gas service. Larcombe didn't know how many households were affected.
The closure order by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams came at the urging of Missoula area officials, who are managing what so far has been a week of flooding on the Clark Fork. Last weekend, the floodwaters topped the 13.75-foot mark, making this the second highest flood level in the past century.
The closure applies to all water-based recreation, including wading, swimming, fishing, floating and boating. Entire trees and tree flotillas are floating downstream, as are parts of mobile homes and at least one propane tank. Joe Blattner with Missoula County Search and Rescue added that what once might have been an easy-to-navigate channel may have shifted.
"We are using extreme caution because conditions are different," Blattner said. "The water is fast. The water is cold. And the water is unrelenting."
Jason Shreber with Zoo Town Surfers said FWP made the right call.
"I think that's a smart idea," Shreber said. "There's a lot of channels and braids in the river, which could be kind of confusing for folks.
"As outfitters, we want to keep folks safe and want the general public to be safe, too. The river is always to be respected, in my opinion, and they're probably making the right decision for that particular section."
Most of the upstream and downstream fishing access sites are either closed or under walk-in only or other limited entry. Some sites on the Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers also are closed.
With water flows topping 60,000 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at St. Regis — about three times the median discharge for this time of year — Shreber said he didn't know of any rafting company that is floating the Alberton Gorge.
"Alberton Gorge is our bread and butter. Hopefully it starts coming down," Shreber said. "But our Gorge season doesn't get busy usually until mid-June."
Genki Kino, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said while river levels dropped during the weekend, he expects the Clark Fork and Bitterroot will rise again as temperatures warm up this week and continue to melt the record and near-record snowpack in the mountains. Possibly heavy rain is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, which could exacerbate flood conditions.
"The rain itself will be spotty ... but where we do get rain it will be a heavy rain," Kino said. "It just depends on where those thunderstorms will be."
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At this point, it looks like they'll hit north of Missoula, which bodes better than if the rain falls in the Blackfoot and Clark Fork drainages, Kino said.
"The Clark Fork right now is still at the moderate flood stage and is trending downward. But as temperatures warm in the next few days, it will raise the river come Wednesday or Thursday and it will keep on rising," Kino said. "The Bitterroot River right now is at full pool, and it looks like it will get back into flood stage, raising to 12 feet by Friday. That's similar to what we saw last week."
As the floodwaters receded in recent days, Mel Holtz, a public information officer for the Type 3 management team, said they're entering the "muck stage." Video shot from a drone shows large trees lining the Clark Fork riverbanks, and both the floodwaters and high groundwater levels are creating pools of standing water in yards.
The lower water levels are allowing people like Noi Ernst to enhance the sandbag barrier around her house east of Tower Street. Wearing chest waders, she pulled a flat-bottom boat to a levy where volunteers had placed dozens of bags of sand. Ernst loaded the boat with sandbags, then pulled it about 50 feet back to the house to strengthen and heighten the barrier.
"I'm trying to make it stable," Ernst said with a smile. "Inside it is dry."
Further down the levy, Ole Ostrom and Bubba Lutz sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck, taking a break from battling the floodwaters to chat about the kindness of strangers.
"The part I'm totally blown away with is the support. We don't even have to call and the trucks are here with sandbags. It's a little overwhelming," Lutz said. "We had 150 trucks with sand bags trying to help people."
Ostrom said their gas is shut off and their septic system is compromised, so they're using a restroom in an RV parked away from the floodwaters that surround his home. They have electricity — for now — from their generator, but don't trust the tap water. Instead, they're drinking bottled water, although Ostrom said his wife heats tap water in the microwave so she can wash her hair.
"And for the last four nights, at 5 p.m., people have brought us a nice hot dinner," he said. "I think the gal down the road did something online. People have never done anything like this before, and we appreciate all the help."
Holtz said about 1,350 volunteers have responded, filling 74,000 sandbags with a total of 1,480 tons of sand. The Army Corps of Engineers is bringing in an additional 100,000 bags, and he urges people not to let their guard down and to help out if possible.
About 65 residences, mainly in the Orchard Homes area, remain under evacuation orders, and more than 2,200 additional homes remain under evacuation warnings in case the rivers once again reach major flood stages.
"Don't get complacent," Holtz said.
Capt. Anthony Rio with the Missoula County Sheriff's Department added that he appreciates residents' patience with the flooding situation, and noted that safety is the priority for Sheriff T.J. McDermott.
"We are planning for the long haul," Rio said.