Snowmelt-swollen rivers plague Wyoming, Colorado; National Guard called in to fill sandbags

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Snowmelt-swollen rivers plague Wyoming, Colorado

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Rain and a spring heat wave that is quickly melting mountain snowpack have sent rivers rising across the West, washing out small bridges and flooding homes in Wyoming and prompting some rafting companies to halt guided trips in Colorado.

Authorities have handed out thousands of sandbags since the weekend. Rain has exacerbated the situation in many places.

“We don’t have a lot of control over it. The city guys and volunteers are working like crazy,” Nancy Webber of Lander, Wyo., said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “And hopefully it will peak today or tomorrow and things will get better as the week goes on. But you never can tell.”

No casualties have been reported. But there were reports of roads and bridges being damaged in eastern Oregon, as well as minor flooding along the Snake River in eastern Washington and north-central Idaho and the Yellowstone in south-central Montana.

The Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security on Tuesday declared disaster emergencies in three counties impacted by severe weather and flooding.

Fears of flooding near Salt Lake City were alleviated as the flow of Big and Little Cottonwood creeks was slowed. Cooler temperatures eased minor flooding in northern Utah but warmer temperatures were expected to return Wednesday.

People were keeping a nervous eye on rising rivers in Colorado, where an Aspen man rafting in the swollen Eagle River drowned over the weekend. In Estes Park, near northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, some 500 sandbags were handed out Monday to hold back the rising Big Thompson River.

Rivers in west-central Wyoming — where Lander is located — were rising to record or near-record levels.

The National Weather Service forecast that area rivers would rise another 6 to 8 inches through Wednesday, 2nd Lt. Christian Venhuizen of the Wyoming National Guard said.

Meteorologists were keeping an eye on a storm front that could bring more moisture to the mountains. Federal officials were also closely monitoring area dams, but were confident they were safe, Venhuizen said from Lander, where the Guard has set up a command post.

Lander, a town of about 7,000 residents in Fremont County, where the Popo Agie River is out of its banks, has asked residents to conserve water after one of the town’s water lines running under the river broke, Webber said.

About 100 members of the Wyoming National Guard have been deployed to evacuate people and help bag sand in Fremont County, which Gov. Dave Freudenthal has declared a disaster area. Another 80 Guard members were expected in the area Wednesday.

Some 86,000 sandbags have been distributed and another 200,000 were due to arrive late Tuesday. Flood lights were set up so volunteers and others could stuff the bags through the night.

Several homes have been flooded and families have moved out, some going to a shelter opened by the Red Cross in Riverton. Venhuizen said there are about 2,100 homes in the affected area, which stretches across roughly 22 square miles. Not all of those homes have been flooded, he said.

Flooding was also occurring in south-central Wyoming. The North Platte River in Saratoga, a town of about 1,900 residents in Carbon County, was expected to eclipse its 1957 flood record on Tuesday night.

“If we were to get 2 to 3 inches of rain every day, this would be what our rivers would look like, but since we live in Wyoming we don’t get 2 to 3 inches of rain every day,” Venhuizen said. “The normal flow in our rivers are a lot lower.”

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