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Seasonal fame

May 21, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

This time of year, everyone knows the names of the flood forecasters

For a couple of months a year, the names of certain public officials become well known, then fade back to a far less-familiar status the rest of the year, even as their important work goes on.

It all has to do with the season and the weather. Lee Hackleman is a such a person. He works for the National Resource Conservation Service, where his title is water supply specialist.

This time of year, Hackleman's name is in the news a lot as everyone keeps an eye on mountain snowpack and the thermometer. We worry about flooding, and Lee Hackleman has an expert, informed opinion on that topic.

Jim Fahey, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Riverton, is another of the seasonally famous. He issues regular reports all year long, but in the spring his flood risk analysis is scrutinized heavily, along with his colorful map that provides graphic illustration of where the biggest flood worry is (the Wind River Basin around Riverton is the wrong color -- purple -- right now).

The "snow water equivalent" in the mountains is almost triple what it was a year ago, and flood risk is pretty high. That is worrisome talk. No question about it. We had a monster flood in 2010 and another big one in 2011. Those memories are fresh in the minds of everyone from emergency personnel to ordinary citizens who watched, aghast, at all the water in places they had never seen it before.

Certainly, then, there is good reason to be on alert, even on edge, as our late spring weather warms, then cools, then warms again. There's also good reason to make what reasonable plans and preparations we can to manage flooding if it comes.

But in an interview with The Associated Press this week, Lee Hackleman made another point or two worth remembering. First, flooding is not inevitable. Even when snowpack is heavy, it doesn't guarantee a flood. Timing and duration of hot weather have a lot to do with it. There have been high snowpack years when it didn't flood, and there have been lower snowpack years than this when we did see flooding.

Second, and more important for the long term, Hackleman noted that Wyoming has a system of reservoirs and related infrastructure intended to handle both ends of the water spectrum. When it's dry, we have water stored up to see us through. And when it's wet, we have reservoirs to catch a lot of the excess.

In recent weeks the reservoir network has been fine-tuned (if that term can be applied to a reservoir that contains 250 billion gallons of water) as flood risk has risen. Water can be released downstream to create room for added inflow. Ditch banks large and small have been cleaned up and, in some cases, stabilized to permit better flow of water.

Sand bags, and the personnel and equipment to fill and deliver them, have been acquired and/or notified. Hackleman, Fahey and others who are experiencing their seasonal fame are watching carefully, ready to sound warnings when the time comes.

We can do our part as private citizens as well. If you are in a potential flood zone, think now about what you will do if water drives you from your place of residence, or if it isolates you from others. Be ready to lend a hand to a neighbor, or to take a turn in a sandbag line, or to drop off a food donation when needed.

The sometimes agonizing thing about spring flooding is that the biggest factors in it are out of our control. But we are not helpless, and we have not been idle ahead of the flood. Those qualities also will serve us well if it arrives.

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