A record snowpack in Canada and sudden hot temperatures over the first two weeks of May have caused flooding in north-central and northeastern Washington.
More than 600,000 sandbags are in place in Okanogan County in anticipation of additional flooding from rapidly melting mountain snowpack that already has damaged some homes and inundated farmland in north-central and northeast Washington.
Officials say the Okanogan River earlier reached the highest flood-stage in more than 40 years.
The flooding is expected to intensify this weekend as the Okanogan and Kettle rivers rise, while more high water is forecast to hit towns along the Pend Oreille River by the end of the weekend.
“It’s going to be a pretty major impact, with the crops lost and orchards flooded,” said Katherine Rowden, a National Weather Service hydrologist based in Spokane.
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The regional flooding started this past week. It was set up by a cool April that kept a big snowpack lingering deep into the spring. Soaring temperatures during the first two weeks in May caused rapid melting and a record runoff of water over the first 15 days of May.
“There’s more snow melting faster than we have ever seen before,” said Scott Pattee, a water-supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But most of the water threatening the Okanogan River Basin comes from a massive snowpack in Canada that reached record, or near-record, levels in many areas. In some cases, the meltwater is originating almost 200 miles from the hard-hit downstream areas in Washington.
In Oroville, just south of the border from Canada, dikes appear to give the town ample protection, according to Oroville Mayor Jon Neal. But outside of town, several homes as well as an orchard have sustained damage as water rushed into the ground floors, and several more homes are at risk.
Rains are expected to add to the dangers in the Okanogan River basin. The potential for severe thunderstorms prompted the National Weather Service on Thursday to issue a flash-flood watch in tributaries that flow through recently burned areas. Then over the weekend, the Okanogan River is expected to hit a second peak, and the forecast calls for the river to remain at major flood stage at least until later next week.
As the flood-stage persists, the risk increases for saturated riverbanks to give way even if the water level remained well below the top of dikes, according to Gerry Bozarth, of Greater Spokane Emergency Management, who is assisting in Okanogan County.
Bozarth said that the Okanogan County flood damage, so far, has yet to be tallied.
“There are a certain amount of homes that have water in the basements, or possibly on their first floors. We are just starting to hear from people,” Bozarath said. “We are still in a flood-fighting mode and we don’t know when things will subside.”
Farther to the east, rising waters threaten several Stevens County homes near the eroding banks of the Kettle River, which reached the highest level ever recorded on May 10, breaking the previous record by nearly 1.5 feet.
“A couple of those homes share a real good viewof the river that they don’t really want,” said Don Dashiell, a Stevens County commissioner.
For the Pend Oreille River, near the Washington-Idaho border, the source of flooding is a heavy snow pack in the Rocky Mountains. Rising temperature and rain is expected to touch off flooding in a few days and keep that river rising until the end of May.
The National Weather Service is urging residents to retrieve portable trailers and recreational vehicles and remove hazardous materials, such as lawn chemicals, oil and gasoline cans.
In the Columbia Basin, the high water already has also impacted the Tri-Cities area, driven there largely by releases from Grand Coulee Dam to make room for meltwater from Canada. Waterfront walkways, docks and parks in Richland have been swamped.
“There’s just a lot of water in the system right now,” Rowden said.
The flood prompted Gov. Jay Inslee on May 10 to declare a state of emergency in 20 eastern and central Washington counties. In a statement, he noted fouled water and sewage treatment facilities, threats to state highways and local roads, as well as some people evacuated from their homes.
The May heat wave in northeast Washington primed the flooding, with temperatures that were routinely more than 10 to 15 degrees above normal, although they did not shatter records, according a National Weather Service official in Spokane.