Western Ag Reporter

When Waters Raged, Montana Rose Up

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As of press time, the state of Montana is one week out from the flood that they are calling a “500 year” event. As the waters begin to recede and affected communities can take in the scope and scale of the damage, many are starting to realize that their idea of “normal” won’t be the same as it was less than 10 days ago.

Between Saturday, June 10, and Tuesday, June 13, the Beartooth and Absaroka Mountain ranges received anywhere from 0.8 inches to over 5 inches of rainfall from the West Coast, according to the Billings National Weather Service.

“The extreme rainfall combined with snowmelt led to a massive deluge of water equivalent to the area receiving two to three months’ worth of summer precipitation in just three days,” CNN experts calculated.

This extraordinary set of circumstances led to record-breaking discharge and height measurements for major and minor bodies of water alike.

Yellowstone River: In Billings, the flood stage for the Yellowstone is 13.5 feet, and on Thursday, June 16, it reached historic levels at over 16 feet, according to Montana Free Press. The previous record was 15 feet on June 12, 1997. At Corwin Springs, it reached 13.88 feet, which surpassed the previous record of 11.5 feet from over 100 years ago.

Stillwater River (near Absarokee): According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Information System (NWIS), the discharge measured on Tuesday, June 13, 2022, was over 20,000 cubic feet per second. The previous record was measured in 1974 at merely 7,700. Additionally, flood levels reached roughly 10 feet the same day {June 13} this year, which broke yet another record that had been standing at 7.17 feet since June 15, 1967.

Stillwater River (near Red Lodge): In this location, NWIS shows that the mean discharge for the Stillwater is close to 615 cubic feet per second. On June 13, it recorded close to 2,000 cubic feet per second (the minimum ever recorded was 178 cubic feet per second in 2001). Prior to losing transmission signal, it reached 8.5 feet, which broke the record of 7.78 feet from June 29, 2011.

The areas impacted are not only experiencing disruptions to travel with entire roads and bridges washing out, but also losses of homes and businesses. Yellowstone National Park, which is celebrating its 150th year this year, is closed for the first time in over 45 years, and the surrounding communities who thrive off the tourist season are wondering just how they’re going to make it.

“Pray for all of us,” Wanda Willcox, owner of Paintbrush Adventures in Absarokee, said. “We are going to make it, but we could really use your prayers.”

On Friday, June 17, Willcox and her husband had returned to their home which is also the location of their ranch vacation business. One road coming to their property was entirely gone, and the other was in poor shape.

“It’s taken part of my land across the river,” she explained, and the fences containing their livestock are all gone.

At the time, there was a concern about the Mystic Lake Dam near their property. Authorities were continually releasing water to relieve some of the pressure from the dam, but had it given, the Willcox’s would have surely lost their home.

At the property, the Willcox’s didn’t have electricity. Wanda explained that her husband used a propane burner to warm some water which he then used to wash her hair for her, like a makeshift spa day, she joked.

All humor was left aside, though, as Willcox explained her reunion with some of her neighbors at a community meeting that was held to discuss their options through FSA and FEMA.

“We were all teary eyed and hugging. One of my friends almost drowned, so we all thanked the Good Lord that we were all alive,” she said. “If it weren’t for our neighbors, we wouldn’t have made it. They saved us.”

When asked what things she took with her when the initial evacuations happened, Willcox said “it’s hard to decide when you have water right up to your doors.”

She ended up grabbing artifacts and family heirlooms, like a gold-nugget ring of her grandmother’s.

“I don’t know why those things were so important,” she conceded.

Auctioneer, Rick Young, who has lived at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, right across the Stillwater, for 55 years, has been grappling with a mix of emotions. His property is high enough in elevation that it was entirely unaffected, but his neighbors have a different reality.

“The unfortunate thing is there may be one person totally unaffected and within a quarter of a mile, or even one hundred yards, there’s somebody that’s totally wiped out,” he said solemnly. “I have no effects whatsoever, but yet some pretty close friends and neighbors have just been wiped out. It’s so difficult.”

He mentioned that it’s also troubling to see people’s possessions, in addition to pieces of their homes, floating past through the water. Young’s son called and told him he saw “an elk mount float down the river, and a dresser, and a washer, and just all kinds of stuff from houses that actually went into the river – it’s just terrible.”

Tobias Cortner works for the Switchback Ranch, and for them, “the flood has thrown the biggest wrench in travel at this point.”

At the time of the interview, Cortner was on his way back from hauling cattle several hours one way to some pastureland in Wyoming, a trip that wouldn’t have taken nearly the time prior to the flood, and was even more burdensome with the price of fuel right now.

“It could definitely be worse,” he added, but “it takes a toll.”

He also pointed out how busy this time of year is for producers who are in the midst of branding, like at the Switchback where they have about 1,200 head they’re needing to get through.

“A lot of people that we had scheduled to help with trailing to these mountain permits and branding can’t manage all of that while also dealing with the floods,” Cortner said with understanding.

But that doesn’t take away from what communities are doing as they rally around each other.

“One positive that can be taken from a tragedy like this,” Cortner said, is that “a lot of people drop what they’re doing to help their neighbor, and that goes a long way. It’s pretty special. Everyone kind of does their best to look out for one another.”

Wanda Willcox had a similar observation: “I hope we all just stick together. If we do, we’ll make it through this.”

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