States across the West are bracing for major flooding in the coming weeks once a record mountain snowpack starts melting and sending water gushing into rivers, streams and low-lying communities. The catalyst will be warmer temperatures forecast for the next week that could set off a rapid thaw.
Randy Julander, a supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, says flooding this year could be worse than anyone has ever seen. Julander said in a typical year the weather warms gradually, allowing snow in the mountains to melt slowly and ease into rivers and streams over time. That's not the case this year after a cool, rainy spring.
"It's all just sitting there, sitting there, sitting there. Everyone knows it's going to come down, it's just when and how quick that we're all waiting for," he said. "The bull is basically sitting in the chute and the gates are already open. He's just not coming out to play yet, but when he does I anticipate he's really going to be ticked off and bucking hard."
At Grand Coulee Dam, gigantic cascades of water are being released to make room for spring snowmelt that is expected to fill the reservoir. A constant roar emanates from the structure as surging water churns the Columbia River below the dam into a white froth.
The dam is 500 feet tall, a mile across, and one of the largest concrete structures on Earth. It is the centerpiece of a network of dams built across the Pacific Northwest during the New Deal era that essentially act as a giant plumbing system for the region - and these days the pipes are overflowing.
The dam is releasing so much water that millions of fish have been put in jeopardy. The heavy flows through dam spillways capture dangerous levels of nitrogen from the air, and the gas bubbles give fish the equivalent of the bends. A fish farm near the Grand Coulee Dam says an estimated 100,000 fish are dying every day, and has gone to court to slow down the flows.
The massive amounts of water coursing through the dams have also created a surplus of hydroelectric power. It's such a huge glut that the main provider of electricity in the Northwest ordered a shutdown of wind farms in the region because the grid can't handle all the extra power.
Early signs of flooding have been seen in other states. Utah has had dozens of mudslides ahead of what the governor calls a "perfect storm" for disastrous flooding in the northern part of the state. Small towns in Montana have been swamped with floodwaters in the past week. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been carrying out big increases in the flow from the state's Fort Peck Dam, causing flooding in South Dakota and North Dakota.
Sacramento, with a population of about 470,000, is the major city at greatest risk of flooding in California. The major concern is flooding caused by deep snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada melting suddenly after a warm rain. Such an event can overload Northern California's extensive system of dams and flood bypasses, straining century-old levees to the breaking point.
Federal officials have determined that Sacramento has the highest flood risk of any U.S. city outside New Orleans, with some neighborhoods under 10 to 20 feet of water after a catastrophic levee failure. Last month, state and federal officials participated in an emergency drill to prepare for just such a disaster.
The National Weather Service predicts this will be one of the top five water years in history in the Pacific Northwest, and the biggest since 1997, the last year of significant flooding, said Gina Baltrush said of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Jon Lea, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, said snowpack in the Western states is a combined 220 percent of average for this time of year.
The Columbia River has been hovering right at flood stage for days in Portland, a low-lying area along the Columbia River. Steve Barton, the Army Corps' reservoir control chief in Portland, said the Columbia should stay below 17 feet, but if the river reaches 18 feet, flooding could occur in lowlands, pastures and farmlands in an area that has a long history with floods.
The Memorial Day weekend marked the 53rd anniversary of the giant flood that wiped out the Portland suburb of Vanport in 1948. The Columbia rose to its historical high of 31 feet, broke through a dike and destroyed Oregon's second-largest city, which had been created during World War II to build ships. At least 15 people died and tens of thousands were homeless, and Vanport exists these days only on some commemorative plaques.
The extra water is good news in the parched Southwest, where runoff sliding into the Colorado River Basin is translating into the first significant water increase for Lake Mead in more than 10 years. Lake Mead provides water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico.
Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Scott Huntley said the reservoir's water elevation had dropped 100 feet in 10 years, a decline that signaled potential water shortages by the end of this year if the trend had continued. Instead, unusual amounts of snow could grow water levels by at least 20 feet by August. "It really takes us from the brink and gives us a little bit of breathing room," Huntley said.
In Wyoming, residents are already using sandbags to protect their homes along the North Platte River near Casper. More than 100 Wyoming National Guard troops have deployed this week in preparation for expected flooding. The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported that the water content of the snowpack across Wyoming stands at more than three times the average for this time of year.
Utah could be one of the hardest-hit spots thanks to heavy mountain snow and a record of 11.73 inches of rain in the past three months. Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson estimated that his county has suffered $20 million in damage already, with the potential for $90 million or more in the next month.
Justin Tobias is doing as much as he could to keep his house in Ogden dry. He has been sandbagging for weeks, but the Weber River already had overflowed his hay fields, seeped into his basement and sent him packing up horses he owns.
"It floods once in a while, but I never anticipated this," the 37-year-old dentist said. "I mean, no one did. I had neighbors live out here 12 years and they've never seen anything close to this."
--- Associated Press Writers Brian Skoloff and Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City, Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, and Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)