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Early flooding in rural Fremont County
Corrals on the Wickstrom property west of Riverton already were flooded over the weekend. Photo by Vern Wickstrom

Early flooding seen in county; officials weigh prevention steps

May 6, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Forecasters expect high water on the Wind River in the next couple of months, and residents already seeing flooding could get some county help.

Fremont County Commissioners plan to hold off on most preparations for it, however, and some officials questioned whether more could be done.

National Weather Service hydrologist Jim Fahey told a Monday meeting of emergency responders, government officials and residents that he expects runoff to peak in the Wind River in late May or early June.

"I'm going for 7,000 to 8,000 cubic feet (per second) of flow at Riverton. Flooding is 6,000," he said. "We'll have problems in the normal problem areas below Diversion Dam."

According to the NWS website, even 8,000 cfs would be a minor flood. The highest recorded water at that site was on July 2, 2011 when it measured 11,500 cfs.

The next few days should bring cooler temperatures, slowing runoff, he said. Snowpack stood at 118 percent of median in the Wind River Basin, creating a potential for high but not record runoff, Fahey said.

"We're hanging right at the top, we're not looking at a 2011 event unless we really get a lot of snow in the next two or three weeks," he said. "We're looking at rivaling the 1996 or 1986 timeframe."

The Fremont County Commission likely would tap Fremont County Fire Protection District chief Craig Haslam to head a response to any flood but wait to do so until forecasters were sure a flood was on the way and when and where it would hit, Commissioner Travis Becker said. Other preparations would wait as well.

"We're not pre-filling sandbags. It just doesn't make fiscal sense," Becker said. "We're going to hold off on doing that until we have a better idea where we're going."

The county would make unfilled sandbags available at county Transportation Department shops to landowners but would only spend public money on protecting critical infrastructure, not private property, Becker said.

Fremont County has 695,000 sandbags on hand, Metzler said.

Some officials cautioned for more caution.

"If you wait until it's time for panic, it's too late," Hornecker said.

Wyoming Office of Homeland Security deputy director Larry Majerus also urged preparation.

"One of the things we learned (from 2011 flooding) is to prepare in advance. If there are hotspots places that need attention now, we feel now is the time to address those with sandbagging," he said.

His office could provide teams to advise a flood response and groups of National Guard members that would bring vehicles and equipment to assist sandbagging.

Infrastructure and residents' lives were his office's priority as well rather than private property, Majerus said. Homeland security also could draw on an additional 1 million sand bags located throughout Wyoming and 7,000 feet of Hesco bastions, large folding mesh boxes that can be filled by a front-end loader and used like sandbags.

He said 5,000 feet the bastions are stationed at the Honor Farm, and the rest are in Thermopolis.

Some people already are concerned about flooding, and their requests spurred commissioners to investigate providing more assistance.

"Yesterday, one o'clock in the afternoon, my dad's corrals down there, they're flooded," Vern Wickstrom said.

Wickstrom, his brother and his father and their families live on River Bluffs Road just downstream of U.S. Highway 26's bridge over the Wind River and downstream of Diversion Dam.

Mary McAleenan was worried water would run over the her mother's property, which is also just down river of the highway's bridge over the Wind River miles west of Riverton.

"I'd ask the county commission if we could get a pile of sand," Wickstrom said.

The county board would have to authorize distributing sand, Becker said, and planned to discuss making the material and a bag-filling machine available for residents. Sandbags already are available.

Weather conditions in the last year make for complicated runoff forecasting.

Rain that fell in September and October soaked into the ground, froze and stayed there, especially in the upper part of the Wind River Basin, according to Fahey. Now, with conditions warming, the increased soil moisture could prevent the ground from absorbing snowmelt.

"When it melts, it should run off rather than soak in. We don't have a lot of info to support that, but it makes hydrologic sense," Fahey said. "We may get more runoff than we think because it doesn't have to go into the ground."

NWS has less data about snowpack on the northern side of the Wind River Basin, making predictions about runoff difficult.

A wildfire last year also destroyed a machine that monitors snowpack remotely, called a SNOTEL, on the west side of the Absaroka Mountains, Fahey said.

"We're kind of blind on the Absarokas," he said.

Snowpack on the eastern side of the mountain range is at nearly record depths, however, indicating runoff on the western side, into the Wind River Basin, might be larger than usual.

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