Homes and fields damaged, riverbanks eroded as waters rise
By Marcy Stamper
Warmer-than-normal temperatures since the beginning of May are driving rapid melting of a still-abundant mountain snowpack, flooding roads, homes and fields and carving out chunks of riverbank throughout Okanogan County.
Many rivers and lakes are above flood stage, with the most-serious flooding in Oroville, Tonasket and Okanogan, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall. “Old-timers say they’ve haven’t seen water like this forever,” he said.
“The snowmelt is ripping off,” said Katherine Rowden, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane.
Many rivers are expected to crest at levels that would be the third-highest since the massive 1948 flood, said Rowden. “It’s pretty concerning — some homes have water in them already,” she said last Thursday at a briefing with county and city officials.
With continued warm weather in the forecast, water levels are expected to rise to near-record levels by the end of the week, according to Jeff Sevigney, a public information officer with the Northeast Washington Interagency Management Team, which has set up an emergency operations center in Okanogan.
Peak levels for the year to date occurred last Wednesday (May 9), after rain swelled rivers already full with water from melting snow. The Methow River at Winthrop reached its first peak and was near moderate flood stage at Pateros.
River levels have come down since the rain-driven peak last Wednesday. By Tuesday (May 15), the Methow River at Winthrop was about 3 feet below its record high and more than a foot below last week’s peak.
The rains on Wednesday pushed the Chewuch River to a foot above its previous record. The river soon dropped below that level but has been rising again this week as temperatures warm.
Forecasters expect a second peak on the Methow River this week, most likely between Wednesday (May 16) and Saturday (May 19). The river in Winthrop is predicted to come close to or exceed last week’s levels and to reach moderate flood stage in Pateros by the end of this week, said Rowden.
This second peak will be driven primarily by snowmelt, since rain in the forecast is not expected to be significant.
In the Okanogan River, the forecast is for a second peak between Thursday and Saturday, where water levels will probably be 1 to 1 1/2 feet higher than last week, said Goodall.
A flood warning is in effect for the Methow River near Pateros until Tuesday (May 22), with a forecast of moderate flooding. As of Tuesday (May 15), the river was at 9.69 feet at Pateros, and it is expected to rise above flood stage (10 feet) by midnight on Wednesday and to 11 feet by midday Friday, which could bring flooding of adjacent roads and lower-lying areas from Pateros to Mazama, according to the National Weather Service.
The river is predicted to fall below flood stage by next Tuesday (May 22).
Rowden predicted that rivers in the Methow basin could remain high for two to three weeks as the snowpack continues to melt. Overall, high water in the Methow Valley is expected to be similar to most years, with the possibility of additional erosion issues, said Goodall.
While forecasting always contains uncertainty, peak river levels later this week could be the maximum for this year’s flood season. “We’re kind of running out of snow at low and mid-elevations,” said Rowden. “But if there’s a lot of rain while the river is high, it could drive a third peak, so it’s too early to say whether the season is over.”
Because high water has altered some river channels, eroded riverbanks and saturated floodplains, people should be aware that water may inundate different areas as flooding continues, said Rowden. “Don’t get in the comfort zone thinking this is all over,” said Goodall.
Even with the rapid melt-off, the snow-water equivalent in the Upper Columbia Basin was 127 percent of normal as of Monday (May 14), according to the National Water and Climate Center of the National Resources Conservation Service. Both Washington and Canada received above-average snowfall this winter.
People throughout the county were coping with homes and outbuildings surrounded by water, flooded basements, and inundated pastures, but there were no evacuation orders as of Tuesday (May 15), according to Sevigney.
At the Lost River Airport development near Mazama, the county has been consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about a berm on U.S. Forest Service property that has had an ongoing issue with erosion, posing a risk to several residences in the development, said Goodall. The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning to notify people that water could get into houses. The agencies are trying to work out permitting and ownership issues for emergency repairs, said Goodall.
In the Twisp Town Park, after several large cottonwood trees fell into the Methow River the river undercut a section of a trail completed last year, causing part of the trail to slough into the river, said Twisp Public Works Director Andrew Denham.
Some private property in Twisp lost at least 8 feet of riverbank. Denham is also monitoring a major trunk line for the town’s sewer system that lies within 20 feet of the river.
“One saving grace is that the Twisp River is not at flood stage yet,” since most of that drainage is north-facing and will melt more slowly, said Denham.
About 200 state workers arrived on Monday (May 14) to help shore up levees and dikes around the county, primarily on the Okanogan River, said Sevigney. On Monday, they focused on Okanogan, Riverside and Tonasket, and were turning their attention to Oroville on Tuesday, he said.
There has been no significant breach of dikes, but water seepage caused a detour for several blocks on the main street through Okanogan. Other roads in central and northern Okanogan County are closed because of water and mud over the roadway.
“Stay out of the water — you don’t know the condition of the roadway, even if it’s paved. Roads can give way,” said Goodall.
Some riverbanks had eroded so much that well casings were completely exposed. Okanogan County Public Health officials warn that any time a wellhead is under water, the water should be tested for contamination.
The Okanogan County commissioners, many towns and cities, and Gov. Jay Inslee have declared a state of emergency.
“Climb aboard the S.S. Kelting — we’re going swimming,” said Jerry Kelting as he prepared to drive his truck through knee-deep water to his Chewuch River cabin.
“I’m past the crying part,” said Kelting, whose grandfather bought the property, which is now largely underwater, in 1962.
This isn’t the first time Kelting and his neighbors have had water around their homes. In 1972, the water came up to his waist and the Army Corps installed a rock berm, he said.
“It’s supposed to be a hundred-year floodplain,” said Kelting, who said last year was the first since 1972 the property flooded. Kelting said the river had recently changed course and now heads directly toward the rock wall. Last year surging waters undercut the ground beneath a small cabin Kelting’s grandfather built, rendering it uninhabitable.
A big surge on Wednesday night (May 9) deposited a lot of debris on his property and breached a dirt berm he’d built, said Kelting. “All them monster trees were going by,” he said. “I called my neighbor to tell him about his beachfront property — he’s got sand instead of lawn.”
Where to get help
Okanogan County Emergency Operations Center (EOC): Call (509) 422-7348 during business hours for information and assistance with flooding.
Sandbags: Okanogan County Fire District No. 6 has free sandbags at the Twisp and Winthrop stations. People who need sand should call the EOC.
Current conditions and graphs of water levels: available on a clickable map on the National Weather Service website at water.weather.gov.
Sign up for emergency alerts: for up to five specific locations on the Okanogan County Emergency Management website at okanogandem.org. People can also sign up for less-specific countywide alerts by texting 888777 and typing “OKCOUNTY” or their zip code. For alerts in Spanish, type “OKESP.”
Water purification and basement flooding: information is available from Okanogan County Public Health at www.okanogancounty.org/ochd, then “Environmental Health,” then “Flood Information” (last item on the list).
River levels and road closures: on a clickable map on the Emergency Management web page at okanogandem.org. Other updates are on the “Okanogan County Emergency Management” Facebook page.
Flooding near electrical connections: Call the Okanogan County Public Utility District at (509) 422-3310.