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A scene of the Yellowstone River near Savage on Saturday.

Nicole Lucina • Sidney Herald

McKenzie County’s Emergency Management Director Karolin Jappe is carrying sandbags around with her to pass out to those in the path of ice jams that are working their way down the Yellowstone River to the Missouri Confluence.

Select Energy Services was among those receiving sandbags Thursday afternoon as water in the Missouri River crested 3 feet above flood stage at the Lewis and Clark Bridge. The bridge is right at the dividing line between McKenzie and Williams County.

Josh Langston, with Select Energy, said the water is about 400 yards out of its bank, and about halfway to one of their pump houses. They had not yet filled the sandbags they had received Thursday afternoon, Langston said, but were watching the situation and preparing to do so if necessary.

“The problem is the river is still iced over, and all the snow melt and everything is piling up on top of it,” Langston said. “The water cannot go down river, so it’s coming up on the banks and starting to move out.”

Whether the situation will get worse is unclear at this point, Jappe said. She was observing things from the Fairview Bridge in Sundheim Park late Thursday afternoon.

She said ice had broken loose in that area, and that the pulse of water was heading downstream, soon to pass from her jurisdiction into Williams County.

A caller south of her location, but still in McKenzie County, had told her that water had risen 2 feet in 30 minutes.

Jappe said several people were viewing the situation with her at Sundheim Park as well. They are concerned with calving going on right now, she noted, and the uncertainty with rising water levels adds to their general worries at a sensitive time of year.

The National Weather Service out of Bismarck has a flood warning in effect for the next 24 hours. Water levels at Sidney are dropping rapidly, NWS meteorologist Patrick Ayd noted. That means less water headed toward Williston and surrounding areas.

Williams County Emergency Manager Mike Smith, meanwhile, was heading into the area late Thursday afternoon, to view the situation, and to take another thousand sandbags to Select Energy.

“Everyone is just kind of watching it,” he said. “When you have ice jams, things can change rapidly. The water levels can surge, and then the ice can jam up again.”

Some roads in Williams County have been inundated, Smith said. They included 144th Avenue Northwest, south of North Dakota Highway 1804, and cross streets.

Smith stressed that vehicles encountering flood waters should not try to cross them, as it does not take much water at all to lift a vehicle off the pavement and sweep it away.

“Once a driver has put themselves in danger, then we have to send rescuers out who are also being put in danger by something that could have been averted,” he said.

Several well pads were also affected, Smith said, but these had been shut in already, well ahead of rising water levels.

Two large ice jams have been working their way down the Yellowstone. They were 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. One had backed water up onto several thousands of acres of farmland along the Yellowstone River near Savage, Montana, and the other inundated Richland Park near Sidney.

The flooding in Montana prompted a rescue on Saturday of a man who was trying to move a camper parked near the Yellowstone. He became trapped at a nearby cabin. A helicopter crew from Minot Air Force Base assisted with his rescue.

Water in the two locations has since receded, according to Richland County Department of Emergency Services Director Deb Gilbert, and has passed out of Montana into North Dakota. Richland Park, however, is still closed because it is too muddy to be safe.

Snow pack in the area, meanwhile, has left a lot of water still on the ground in northeastern Montana.

Patrick Gilchrist with the National Weather Service out of Glasgow, said this is later in the season than usual for snow pack to be lingering. That increases the risk that a sudden warm-up will melt the snow all at once, and could cause the area more flooding issues.

“The good news is that looking out at the next seven days, we should continue to hold onto cooler temperatures,” he said.

In the ideal case, cooler nights and warmer days can help ensure that the snow melts slowly, so that it can infiltrate and doesn’t all become runoff all at once, causing flooding.

The cooler temperatures also mean that the ice jams will hang around for a bit longer, and have more chance to interact with future run-off, which can cause more flooding.

The amount of snowpack in the mountains is good news for irrigation, Gilchrist added.

“We are at 156 percent of normal for the Yellowstone, and the Missouri River is well over 100 percent for most of its drainages,” he said. “The Milk River is 132 percent of normal snow pack.”

That should mean good river levels going into June and July months, when irrigation begins to peak.

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