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Flathead, Swan rivers cresting in minor flood stage

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Flathead Flooding 2

An onlooker takes a photo of the engulfed Flathead River near Columbia Falls on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

Weeks of rain and snow in northwest Montana have kept the region's rivers and streams in flood stage, but experts say the worst has passed as more seasonal, sunny weather enters the radar.

Both the Flathead and Swan rivers were in minor flood stage midday Wednesday, with several nearby creeks and tributaries spilling out of their banks.

The Flathead River, which has been in minor flood stage for 10 days, triggered several pre-evacuation notices earlier this week. The 700 block of Wagner Lane near Kalispell, South River Road and the Evergreen area remain on notice of potential low-lying flooding.

“We are pretty much waiting in the status quo,” said Flathead County Undersheriff Wayne Dubois. “We’re hoping it should peak today or tomorrow and drop from there.”

Provisional data at the river gauge near Columbia Falls detected the Flathead rising to about 14.5 feet Wednesday. Minor flood stage is 13 feet. The river peaked just under 15 feet on June 16, and has hovered in the 14-foot range since.

One man died on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River Tuesday after the raft he and two others were riding on flipped. The Sheriff’s office said despite warm weather, rivers are unsafe and could change. The office encouraged all people to stay out of the river for now.

State agencies also warned on Wednesday that there are hazards and debris in rivers following flooding events and advised recreators to avoid affected rivers and follow fishing site closures.

“It’s likely more floating and boating hazards will emerge as waters recede,” said Hope Stockwell, Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division administrator, in a press release. “We’re opening sites as quickly as possible, but boaters and other recreators should still use an abundance of caution when on the water.”

Rivers may also contain chemicals and bacteria from damaged or overwhelmed wastewater treatment facilities and flooded homes, businesses and agricultural fields, the release said.

“Even during moderate rain events, it’s common to find high levels of E. coli bacteria in rivers and creeks,” said Darrin Kron, DEQ Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Section supervisor. “With historic rain and flood events occurring in parts of Montana, people should take extra precautions and avoid drinking, fishing and swimming in rivers after flooding.”

Ray Nickless, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said the rivers will be running fast as the last high-elevation rain and snow washes through the Flathead Valley, but said many places of concern will start improving soon.

“The good news is we are seeing that the Middle Fork of the Flathead crested on Tuesday, and is now dropping,” Nickless said, adding that discharge levels of the North Fork of the Flathead have been declining for a few days.

There is a flood advisory for the Swan River from Condon to Flathead Lake after hotter weather began melting above-average snow pack. The Swan passed a minor flood stage at 6.5 feet near Bigfork Wednesday morning.

Nickless explained that the slow-moving nature of the Swan River, which meanders the valley floors, has delayed discharging some rainfall as fast as other places. The National Weather Service warned that docks could be temporarily flooded near Bigfork Bay, and urged caution when near the riverbanks.

Much of the flooding came from warm and wet Pacific storms that drenched Montana in June. One sensor above the Hungry Horse Dam estimated there has been 10 inches of precipitation for the month of June, which is much higher than average.

Nickless said to be cautious around the rivers right now, as they are running fast and cold enough to cause hypothermia. The rivers will likely run above average for the next few weeks, partially fueled by high-elevation snow.

“We have certainly moved out of any drought here,” Nickless said.

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