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Milk River cattle

Aerial view shows cattle crowded on an island in Milk River floodwaters on Saturday.

Widespread flooding in and around Hi-Line towns from Chinook to Saco appeared to be peaking on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, but flooded fields, houses and roads along the Milk River are likely to remain inundated for at least the next two weeks.

In Chinook, river levels had begun to drop by early Sunday afternoon, according to Mark Weber, a spokesman for Blaine County. Streams that pour into the Milk River remained swollen, however, and he said Lodge Creek, which drains out of Canada, had yet to crest where it runs through town.

“The good news is that (the Milk) is almost a foot lower than what the originally projected peak was, and that’s holding,” Weber said. “But the chance of it going up is not zero. Lodge Creek is still an issue.”

Homes and ranches outside Chinook, Harlem and Savoy were inundated by the flood, which approached near-record levels over the weekend.

The water and wastewater treatment plants in both Chinook and Harlem had been surrounded by water, Weber added, but he didn’t expect any sewage or chemicals to end up leaking out of the facilities.

“Other than getting the operators in and out, they’ve been able to run normally,” he said.

Milk River aerial

An aerial view shows flooding along the Milk River in the spring.

Farther downstream, the Milk River at Harlem had also appeared to hit its peak Sunday afternoon, said Ted Jamba, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Glasgow. Water levels aren’t expected to drop much until Tuesday.

“The stuff in Harlem is pretty amazing. They were getting close to major flood stage,” Jamba said. The river had appeared to crest at 24.5 feet on Sunday.

The town of Dodson reached 28.1 feet, just above its moderate flood stage of 28 feet, he said, while in Malta the river had just barely risen above its flood stage.

Officials in Phillips and Valley counties all said they were preparing for substantial flooding, but didn’t expect to see the type of damage that was wrought by major events in 2011 and 2014.

“It’s not even close,” said David Speer, Phillips County’s Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator. “It’s just some minor, lowland flooding right now. ... We’re monitoring the situation constantly, but other than that it’s not something anybody’s getting wound up about.”

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Some structures along the river in Malta had been flooded in the past couple days, he said, but those still standing had already been abandoned after previous floods. Like much of the Hi-Line from Havre to Glasgow, floodwaters in Phillips County are expected to hang around at least until early May.

Residents living along the Milk River have gotten used to the annual high waters that periodically push over the river’s banks and onto the flat prairie to the north and south. The region’s propensity for flooding owes to its geologic history, Jamba said.

When massive glaciers moved down from Canada during the last ice age, they essentially graded what had been the Missouri River valley, he said, pushing that river south to its current location and leaving little remaining topography where the Milk River now cuts its winding route alongside U.S. Highway 2.

“This river basically spreads out like a bathtub with a small drain,” Jamba said. “It doesn’t take much of a water rise to get it to spread over the valley. That’s basically the case from Havre all the way downstream to Nashua.”

In Glasgow, which lies near the Milk River’s confluence with the Missouri, water levels were continuing to rise, as of Sunday afternoon. Officials are expecting moderate flooding, but substantially less than had been previously forecasted.

Valley County DES Coordinator Rick Seiler said his office had already identified and alerted residents in about 30 homes along the river that may need to evacuate during the next few days. The most recent projections had the Milk cresting at about 29 feet in Glasgow, compared to recent years, including 2011, that have seen its levels rise above 34 feet.

But, Seiler warned, “This could all change. We haven’t seen all the water come out of Canada yet. Frenchman (Creek) hasn’t run big yet, or Rock Creek, so we might see some changes, because all that water from the Chinook and Havre area will be here in a couple days.”

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Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.