HELENA - The Milk and Musselshell rivers were receding Thursday after reaching record levels and flooding streets and homes in Glasgow and Roundup. But it may be a brief respite as the melting snowpack and continuing rain were expected to mean more high water across Montana.
Flooding has been reported from the Clark Fork River near Missoula to the Sun River in central Montana and the Missouri River in the eastern part of the state, forcing many residents to evacuate. Flooding expected to continue in several areas through the weekend.
For weeks, the state has endured flooding fueled by record amounts of rain combined with the snowpack just now melting after an unusually cool and wet spring.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer requested a presidential disaster declaration after the first round of flooding late last month. And there is no apparent end in sight, with more rain forecast over the next several days in some of the hardest-hit areas.
The Clark Fork River above Missoula was forecast to crest at 12 feet Thursday, which could cause moderate flooding in neighborhoods at the western edge of the city.
Missoula County issued an evacuation warning to all county residents outside the city, advising them to leave. Officials took that step because they aren't sure what the river will do in the next few days, county spokesman Robert Kennedy said.
"It's a request that if residents are seeing water encroach on their property - or if water is on their property - it's a good idea to leave at this point and seek an alternative residence until the water recedes," he said.
The Red Cross is ready to open a shelter as soon as word comes that people have started to leave their homes, Kennedy said.
In northeastern Montana, the Milk River crested at over 34 feet Wednesday at Glasgow, beating the previous record of 33.2 feet and forcing more than a dozen families to evacuate a subdivision on the southeastern part of town.
Up to a foot of water covered some streets and flooded basements, officials said.
"We had three complete blocks that had flooding," Glasgow Water Department employee Dirk Monson told the Great Falls Tribune.
The Milk River was expected to drop from major flood stage to moderate flood stage Thursday, where it is forecast to stay through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
Farther east, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to increase its water releases from the Fort Peck Dam into the Missouri River to 60,000 cubic feet per second by Friday, spilling a record amount of water from the dam to communities on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and downstream to North and South Dakota.
The increased flow is meant to help the corps better balance flood storage between the Fort Peck and Garrison dams, Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River water management office, said in a statement.
Roosevelt County officials said 17 families have been evacuated from homes downstream from the Fort Peck Dam and 30 more residences are likely to be affected by the rising Missouri River.
In central Montana, the Musselshell River crested at a record 14.16 feet Wednesday at Roundup and was still at major flood stage Thursday. Residents who were cleaning up from the last round of flooding two weeks ago found themselves having to leave again as water swamped their basements.
The river was expected to keep falling until Friday. But up to 2 more inches of rain was forecast to fall in the region over the next couple of days, and the Musselshell was forecast to reach major flood stage again this weekend, leaving flood-weary residents to deal with the high water once more.
Billings Meteorologist Keith Meier said the Musselshell River cannot absorb any more water being dumped into it by heavy rains and flooded creeks upstream, leading to the quick rise and fall of water levels.
"Certainty the response we saw earlier in the week is indicative of just how saturated everything is," Meier said.
Some of the 130 residents of Sun River have left their homes as the river that their tiny central Montana town is named after rises around them, forcing the closure of portions of state Highway 200 that runs through the middle of town.
National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Brusda told the Great Falls Tribune the river upstream of town was expected to rise to about 10 feet by noon Thursday. Flood stage is 7½ feet.
Lewis and Clark County officials have requested 200,000 sandbags after flooding in East Helena and the Helena valley threatened homes and inundated the East Helena Sewage Treatment Plant with water, according to the state Disaster and Emergency Services.
Emergency operations managers said some water levels have come down around the Helena valley but continue to threaten homes, septic systems and wells, the Independent Record reported.
High water also has forced officials to close portions of Missouri Headwaters State Park. The park near Three Forks is where the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers come together to form the Missouri.