Wyoming River Flooding Causes Millions in Damage, Several Deaths

By BOB MOEN | August 16, 2017

The high volume of water that poured down Wyoming rivers and streams from a melting record mountain snowpack this year is being blamed for several river deaths and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to roads, recreation sites and other infrastructure, according to initial estimates.

The full extent of the damage is still being tallied and some damage is so extensive that the repair work will stretch beyond this year. Fremont and Park counties as well as the Wind River Indian Reservation have been declared federal disaster areas because of the flooding that occurred mainly in June.

Still, officials say the damage would have been much worse if not for local counties making early and extensive preparations for the flooding.

“We had record water levels, but because of all the preparations counties had taken in advance we didn’t see full impacts of that flooding, which was wonderful,” Kelly Ruiz, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, said.

Record amounts of snow fell in the central and western Wyoming mountains over the winter and spring. When temperatures warmed, the equivalent of at least 30 inches (76 centimeters) of water cascaded down mountainsides in some places. Rivers and streams flooded and roads and bridges were washed out.

Gregg Fredrick, chief engineer with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said state roads in more than 30 locations saw damage, with preliminary estimates pegging damage at around $13 million.

Any damaged roads have since been at least temporarily repaired, so people traveling in Wyoming for next week’s solar eclipse won’t face any obstacles along state roads and highways.

In Fremont County, the Wind River caused more $3.8 million in damage to an irrigation canal west of Riverton, according to Scott McFarland, water commissioner for the Riverton Valley Irrigation District. The district has already spent about $850,000 just to get the canal back in operation for the 60 farmers who use it to irrigate crops, but it will cost about another $3 million to make all the needed repairs and reclamations, he said Monday.

In northwest Wyoming, the 3.4 million acre (1.4 million hectare) Bridger-Teton National Forest saw widespread and extensive damage.

“We saw lots of flooding and particularly impacting the public in terms of their access where road after road after road was washed out or had a landslide,” forest spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said. “We had culverts that blew out and pieces of the road fell into the rivers and creeks that were definitely swollen and running high.”

In addition, several boating deaths occurred on rivers that can be attributed to the much swifter and colder than normal water, challenging even experienced rafters, Cernicek said.

“You really needed be on your A game, and expect the unexpected when recreating in these areas,” she said.

Water also washed away some campsites, including fire rings, and roads, Cernicek said.

At least one backcountry road claimed by a massive slide will remain closed this year, she said.

In neighboring Grand Teton National Park, the National Park Service has spent about $600,000 to reopen a paved road that was washed out by the Gros Ventre River, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said. More permanent work needs to be done to stabilize the road, she said.

Some foot and stock bridges along backcountry trails were washed away, and the snow has lingered longer in some areas used by hikers and climbers, Germann said.

“It’s limited some access for some of the recreationists just because of the skill level that’s needed,” she said. “The skill level to cross some of those snow patches and icy conditions is at a higher level.”

But Germann said visitors coming to the park for the eclipse, which passes right over Grand Teton, shouldn’t be impeded by anything associated with the earlier flooding.

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