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High water mixed blessing in Bitterroot

By Kevin Maki, KECI Reporter, kmaki@keci.com
Published On: May 28 2014 06:14:12 PM MDT
Updated On: May 28 2014 09:41:56 PM MDT
HAMILTON, Mont. -

The Bitterroot is shaping up to have a wealth of water this summer.

With snowpack at 180 percent of the long-term average, it's a very different year from 2013. Last year, at 80 percent, levels were far below normal.

Several daily peak flow records were set this week.

Flows aren't likely to top 1997, which recorded the highest peak loads in 50 years. But it's some of the most impressive flow in at least 10 years.

"We're going to have snow into mid-July up high in the Bitteroots," said Bitterroot National Forest hydrologist Ed Snook. "The Sapphires will probably be clear of snow in early July or late June."

Measuring sites in the Sapphires show water content in the snowpack has dropped from 30 inches to 15 inches since May 1, said Snook.

The hydrologist estimates about a quarter of the water has gone down the Bitterroot River so far. The next 25 percent will probably play out in two weeks, he said, with the remainder melting off in late summer.

The high water is a mixed blessing. It has certainly made for a lush spring, with expectations of an extended green summer. Farmers are optimistic.

But the fishing industry and anglers are anxious to see water levels drop.

Hamilton fly shop owner Jeff Gray said high water isn't good for fishing. Gray expects a delay in business.

"It's going to be a little bit later start than last year," said Gray. "This year it's going to be the end of June, or maybe the beginning of July before we really get going."

Gray said his busiest season is June and July, so losing part of June is a hardship. But he said in fishing, it's better to have too much water than not enough.

"It will keep our water temperatures down," said Gray. "The fish will have more room to move around, so the health of the river system will actually benefit from the high water."

Stevensville farmer Jay Meyer is happy with the snowpack's high water content. The runoff coming out of the mountains, said Meyer, has been "very polite."

He's already irrigated his farm once.

"It's been wonderful," he said. "The grass looks good."

Meyer thinks it will probably be a good year for all irrigators in the Bitterroot. The farmer waters his place by flood irrigation and sprinklers. It won't be long before he starts cutting hay.

"We won't know what it will be until we get it up," he said. "But we are very optimistic that it will be a good one."

Jay Meyer is a farmer. So he doesn't like to predict anything. The seasons are just too volatile. But he said if there ever was a banner year for irrigators, this might be it.