Slim pickings

Wildlife in the Bitterroot Valley will certainly be happy once this season's long-lasting snowpack finally disappears. This week's forecast calls for temperatures to warm into the low 50s during the day and then plunge back below the freezing mark at night. That could slow the snowmelt and keep low-land flooding at bay.

On Friday, Eric Hoover was marveling at the fact that the puddles alongside the road were still frozen after lunch as he shuttled empty sandbags from one location to another in Ravalli County.

“It’s actually pretty cold out here still today,” Hoover said. “It might be the coolest day of the week so far. It’s exactly the kind of weather that we’re hoping to see over the next couple of days.”

The weather forecast offers some hope that low-land flooding in the Bitterroot Valley might be pushed back at least until after spring officially arrives next Wednesday.

While daytime temperatures might push over the 50 degree mark, National Weather Service meteorologist LeeAnn Allegretto said the freezing cold is expected to stay around for the time being overnight.

“We’re going to see some melting, but it’s not going to be like a crazy amount of it,” Allegretto said. “We’re letting people know that now is the time to check on those downspouts and move snow away from places that you don’t want water. We know it’s only going to get worse from here. It’s going get warmer sometime and the days are getting longer.

“We’re just trying to ring the bell a little louder,” she said.

The snowpack is at least partially responsible for the cold nights the area is experiencing.

“The fact that we have so much snow right now is the reason it’s getting so cold at night,” Allegretto said. “We’re also not seeing a lot of mixing going on in the atmosphere. That’s helping to keep things stable. It’s working out in our favor, but the whole thing is going to flip at some point.

“Right now, we don’t see a huge warm up coming soon or a lot of rain in the next seven to 10 days,” she said. “So far, so good.”

The bad news is there is a lot of water stored in the snowpack on the valley floor and the ground is either frozen or getting close to being saturated.

The National Weather Service takes daily readings of water content in the snowpack at the Missoula airport. On Friday, they measured about 2.5 inches of water from the nine inches of snow at that site.

At a snow measuring site in the Bitterroot Mountains at 5,600 feet on Friday, there was 61 inches of snow that contained about 15.5 inches of water.

At the weather service, Allegretto said they look at flooding potential in two stages. Low-land flooding happens first; that’s followed by snow melt coming from the mid- and higher elevations later in the spring that impacts creeks and rivers.

“The low causes the basements to go,” she said. “The next round usually comes in May. Of course, all of it depends on how it comes off. It’s going to be an interesting melt this year.”

Ravalli County Environmental Health Department Director John Polacio said now is a good time for people to protect their septic systems and wells from being flooded.

“We advise people to keep water from pooling around their septic tank and drainage areas to ensure that they don’t become oversaturated,” Polacio said. “People should also be concerned about the potential of contamination to their wells, especially if they live down gradient from parking lots, ditches or from land where there are lots of cattle.”

If people do believe their wells may have become contaminated, they can obtain a testing system from the county environmental health department.

“If it comes back as contaminated, we can offer information on how to clean their well,” he said.

The best thing people can do right now is move any piles of snow away from their septic system and wells and then do what they can to reroute any surface runoff away from that infrastructure.

Ravalli County residents can obtain additional information from environmental health’s webpage on the county site or from its Facebook page.

County residents are getting prepared for the water that’s sure to come.

“There’s been people here pretty solid for the last three days,” said Roylene Gaul of the Victor Fire Department. “The county has already delivered three truckloads of sand. We maybe have a load and a third left.”

In those three days, Gaul said people filled over 600 sandbags.

“I think it could be a busy weekend here,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of people who were here in the 90s when people were getting water up over their floorboards when the flood rolled through Victor and Fifth Avenue.”

The fire hall flooded that year. Gaul has a photograph of firefighters standing in water up to their waist to prove it.

“As long as it stays cool at night, I think we’re going to be OK for a while,” she said. “But if the nights get warm or it starts raining. Well, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

Gaul said volunteer fire department members will help the elderly get sandbags filled and set. But younger people need to come ready to work.

“I had a 40-old-man ask me if I would fill his bags for him,” she said. “I told him that he really needs to do that for himself.”

Sand and sandbags have been distributed for Ravalli County residents at the following locations:

• Darby Town Yards, 500 E Miles, Darby.

• Ravalli County Fairgrounds, enter through the access road next to the County Road Shop on Fairgrounds Rd., located in the far northeast corner of the grounds.

• Corvallis Fire Station #2 at mile marker 9 on Eastside Highway.

• Victor Fire New Station, 2383 Meridian Road, Victor.

• Stevensville Fire Westside Station at the Stevensville Wye behind Subway.

• Stevensville Etna Station, 356 Willoughby Lane.

• Three Mile Fire Station #1, 1064 Three Mile Creek Road.

• Florence Fire Station #2, 562 Hidden Valley Road North.