Runoff creates dangerous river conditions

by Lake County Leader
| May 22, 2020 8:26 AM

Spring snowmelt has created high water in streams and rivers in Northwest Montana and forecasters say rain this week

According to the National Weather Service in Missoula, rainfall will persist through at least Friday, with possible thunderstorms Friday.

The widespread rain, combined with mountain snowmelt will cause “dramatic increases” to small streams and main rivers, the Weather Service cautioned. Flooding is possible beginning Wednesday through the weekend.

“Watch for rapid rises in river levels across the region, with the greatest concerns on the Clark Fork, Flathead, Bitterroot, Clearwater, Yaak, Fisher, and Swan Rivers,” the Weather Service warned.

The Clark Fork at Plains is projected to be at 13.84 feet by May 22. It was at 10.41 feet Tuesday. Action stage at the section is 15 feet with flood stage at 16.

The Clark Fork above Missoula was at 6.88 feet Tuesday with a projected rise to 10.69 feet by Friday. Minor flood stage is 7.5 feet and moderate is 11 feet.

The Flathead River near Polson was at 10.83 feet Tuesday with a projected rise to 12.5 feet by May 26. Minor flood stage is 18 feet.

Flathead Lake is also expected to see a steady increase in its pool level. The lake water elevation was at 2,888 feet on Monday, and will fill to 2,889 by May 25. Energy Keepers, which manages the dam at the south end of the lake, anticipates Flathead Lake being full for summer recreation sometime in June.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials recommend those considering a trip may want to wait for better conditions.

High water can be deadly when conditions are too extreme for safe boating.

Although it can be hard to put safety ahead of adventure when you’ve spent hours planning a boating trip, sometimes the only safe choice is to stay off the water. If you do go, make sure you stay safe by wearing a well-fitted personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket when on and around the water.

Even if you are only near a rapidly flowing river, wear a life jacket; it could save your life. If you fall into cold water without a life jacket on, you could drown in a matter of minutes.

There are other times, especially for less experienced boaters and floaters, when the dangers aren’t apparent until they’ve entered the water.

Here are some tips for navigating the dangers of high water:

• Don’t boat alone.

• Make sure someone on shore knows where you plan to put in, take out and when you plan to return.

• If the water is in a stage you wouldn’t choose to swim in, then don’t launch your boat.

Boaters should also make a study of high-water hazards and be prepared to cope with dangers such as:

• debris in the water.

• capsizing in cold water and the possibility of hypothermia.

• bridge abutments that catch debris and create swirling waves.

• turbid, muddy water that makes other hazards difficult or impossible to see.

Don’t forget that high water can also cause damage and Fishing Access Site (FAS) closures, and restrictions are likely as spring runoff continues.

For updates on FAS closures, visit and click “Restrictions and Closures.”

If you have any questions, please contact Sara Smith, Boating Education Coordinator for the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Recreational Boating Safety Program, at 406-444-5280 or