After Yellowstone, Floodwaters Threaten Montana’s Largest City
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Devastating floodwaters that wiped out miles of roads and hundreds of bridges in Yellowstone National Park and inundated dozens of homes in surrounding communities moved Wednesday and threatened to cut off drinking water to residents of Montana’s largest city.
Heavy weekend rains and melting mountain snow caused the Yellowstone River to sink to a historic high of 16 feet (4.9 meters) as it passed Billings. The city draws its water from the river and was forced to shut down its sewage treatment plant around 9:30 a.m. because it cannot operate efficiently with such high water levels.
Billings only had a 24-36 hour water supply and officials asked its 110,000 residents to conserve while expressing optimism that the river would drop fast enough for the plant to resume operations before supply runs out.
“None of us anticipated a 500-year flood on the Yellowstone when we designed these facilities,” said Debi Meling, director of public works for the city.
The unprecedented and sudden flooding that raged in Yellowstone earlier this week drove out all more than 10,000 visitors to the nation’s oldest park, which remains closed. It damaged hundreds of homes in nearby communities, although remarkably no one was injured or killed.
It has also diverted a popular fishing river – possibly permanently – and can force roads ripped up by torrents of water to be rebuilt at a safer distance.
On Wednesday, residents of Red Lodge, Montana, a gateway town to the north end of the park, used shovels, wheelbarrows and a pump to clear thick mud and debris from a flooded home on Wednesday. along the banks of Rock Creek.
“We thought we had it, and then a bridge came out. And it diverted the stream, and the water started rolling out the back, smashed a basement window, and started filling my basement. -sol,” Pat Ruzich said. “And then I stopped. It was like the water had won.”
Park officials say the northern half of the park will likely remain closed all summer, a devastating blow to local economies that rely on tourism.
In Gardiner, Montana, businesses had just begun to recover from the contraction in tourism caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and were hoping for a good year as Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary, said Bill Berg, county commissioner of Park.
“It’s a Yellowstone town, and it lives and dies on tourism, and it’s going to be a pretty big hit,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out how to hold things together.”
Meanwhile, as the waters recede, park officials turn their attention to the massive effort to rebuild miles of crumbling roads and hundreds of destroyed bridges, many of which were built for hikers in the countryside. Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said assessment crews won’t be able to account for the damage until next week.
Kelly Goonan, an associate professor at Southern Utah University and an expert in national parks and recreation management, said rebuilding will be a long process.
“It’s something that we’re definitely going to feel the effects of over the next few years,” Goonan said.
As Yellowstone’s reconstruction efforts begin, rangers will need to consider the reality of the park’s altered landscape as well as potential future natural disasters.
“We certainly know that climate change is causing more natural disasters, more fires, bigger fires and more floods and bigger floods. These things are going to happen, and they’re probably going to happen much more intensely.” said Robert Manning, a retired professor of environment and natural resources at the University of Vermont. Authorities may also be able to rebuild in a way that’s greener than the roads and bridges built a decade or a century ago, he said.
The rains hit just as hotels in the area have been filling up in recent weeks with summer tourists. More than 4 million visitors were counted by the park last year. The wave of tourists doesn’t subside until fall, and June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.
Yellowstone officials hope to be able to reopen the southern half of the park, which includes the Old Faithful geyser, next week. The closure of the northern part of the park will prevent visitors from accessing sites such as Tower Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar Valley, which is known for viewing wildlife such as bears and wolves.
It remains to be seen how he will manage all the tourists when only half of the park is open.
“One thing we know for sure is that half the park can’t handle all the visits,” Sholly said Tuesday. The park will likely implement some sort of reservation or timed entry system to let people in without sending out exorbitant crowds.