Ice jams keep Eastern Montana on flood alert

2011-03-14T11:45:00Z 2011-03-20T10:00:09Z Ice jams keep Eastern Montana on flood alert

By LORNA THACKERAY

Of The Gazette Staff‌

The Billings Gazette

Ice jams clogging the Yellowstone River have Eastern Montana counties on flood alert from Sidney to Miles City.

“We’re watching it pretty closely,” Miles City Mayor Joe Whalen said Monday morning. “I don’t know that we’ve seen the brunt of it yet.”

High water has been lapping at levies that surround the city since a sudden rise in the river Friday night, but so far the city remains dry, he said.

Custer County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Jim Zabrocki said he doesn’t expect the river to top the 21-foot-high levies, but low-lying agricultural land could be inundated.

Flood stage on the Yellowstone at Miles City is 13 feet. River levels peaked just short of 15 feet on Sunday, but had backed down to 14.17 feet on Monday morning.

Water hasn’t been this high since 1979, when the river crested at 16.62 feet on March 15. That was the highest level recorded at Miles City. Second-highest was 16.5 feet on June 22, 1978. Sunday’s crest was the third-highest.

Zabrocki said he expects river levels to fluctuate as warmer weather continues to break up the ice.

“We still have ice upstream on the Yellowstone, and there is some ice on the Tongue yet to come down,” he said.

High water already has prompted officials to close Pirogue State Park north of Miles City.

The public is asked to not use the access road beginning at the Kinsey Highway to avoid damage to the road and to eliminate the possibility for vehicles getting stuck.

Another factor in the high-water scenario in Eastern Montana is the quantity of snow still to melt and the fact that the ground in northern Custer County remains frozen and can’t absorb the melt water, said Tom Frieders, warnings coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Billings.

“There’s upwards of one to two inches of snow-water equivalent out there, and it can’t get into the ground,” he said. “It has no place to go, so it just runs off.”

He expects small creeks to be out of their banks all over the area as snowmelt continues. Flood warnings are in effect for all of Custer County.

A flood watch, a slightly lower alert level, remains in effect in Dawson County, where the Yellowstone at Glendive was only inches below flood stage on Monday morning. The watch extends through Dawson, Prairie, Richland and Wibaux counties until Wednesday afternoon.

“So far, we’re doing fine,” said Dawson County Road Supervisor Joe Sharbono. “The Yellowstone has come up quite a bit, and we’ve had some flooding in low-lying farm lands where it always hits, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

He doesn’t think Glendive will flood, but “right now we’re holding our breath and waiting and watching to see what it will do.”

Flood warnings have also been issued for Petroleum County and western Garfield County until Tuesday afternoon.

Ice jams have squeezed the Musselshell River at Mosby in southeastern Petroleum County, backing up water to a foot above flood stage. According to the National Weather Service, ice jams clog the river both below and above Mosby.

An ice jam a half-mile long on Flatwillow Creek south of Mosby caused flooding on farm land. Another ice jam 1-1/2 miles long lingers on Sage Hen Creek near Mosby. Other creeks in the area are also expected to be out of their banks for the next few days.

An ice jam was also reported on the Little Bighorn River north of Crow Agency.

In Treasure County, flooding near Hysham has closed state Highway 384 on the north end of Interstate 94 and on the south end at mile marker 40.

Law enforcement reported water over roads in parts of Big Horn, Custer and Rosebud counties. Water was also rising on the Powder and Little Powder rivers near Broadus.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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