THE BUZZ 2: Nature Rages on

By on June 14, 2017

Wading through Jackson Hole’s water world and the victims it has inconvenienced and claimed.

An aerial shot of the soggy environs surrounding North Highway 89. (Photo: nps.gov)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Two weeks ago, PJH reported about a man who warned local officials of catastrophic flooding after a wet, heavy winter. He gave up after feeling like no one was listening. If there was ever a time to say “I told you so,” last week might have been it.  Raging waters in the Gros Ventre River have claimed Cattleman’s Bridge and 4.5 miles of Gros Ventre road. While officials predict the worst is over, Teton County residents like Megan Griswold are still paying the price.

“Just having to mentally adjust to feel like I live much further away from the grocery store,” Griswold said, has taken a toll. Bank erosion in the Gros Ventre has closed the main road “indefinitely” since Tuesday. The detour takes Kelly residents and park visitors through Antelope Flats, which Griswold estimates adds at least an hour to her commute a day. And that’s before peak traffic. Griswold bemoans the narrow road she now drives every day. “It’s not considered a through-way,” she said. “It’s narrower by quite a bit than Gros Ventre. It’s a little sketchy, really. And add that to the dynamic of tourist-season traffic…”

She says people are now using Antelope Flats Road to get to the iconic Mormon Row, and visitors stop at every opportunity to take photos of wildlife and scenery. “It’s a little bit daunting, actually,” Griswold said.  She acknowledged that a longer commute is a “first-world problem,” especially when she’s lucky enough to live in a place like Kelly, but it’s been a difficult adjustment. She already reminisces about the days when she “used to turn” at Gros Ventre. “I’m nostalgic already,” she said.

Griswold is frustrated with the lack of information she feels Grand Teton National Park has offered about the closure. “I think it’s fair that they should at least update,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety around the ‘what if.’”

But Grand Teton National Park Spokeswoman Denise Germann said that until the water goes down, there’s not much of an update to give. “The Gros Ventre is basically the same as it was,” Germann said. “It slowly gets closer to the road.” An “indefinite” road closure is all they can offer until the river calms. In the meantime, park officials are doing their best to monitor the situation and keep park visitors safe.

Cattleman’s Bridge, which was scheduled to be replaced in 2018, began to crumble Thursday afternoon. A buildup of debris from a raging river, coupled with an already-deteriorating structure, caused the bridge to buckle. It is still unclear whether WYODOT will attempt to make temporary repairs, or just keep the bridge closed until its scheduled replacement date.

“Ironically, we had meetings with WYDOT on Thursday to discuss concerns with that bridge, with the pilings being so close and the log jams building up against those piling,” County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim said. The new bridge, he said, will be “much safer long-term, but obviously we’re trying to figure out now what to do. We’re still assessing the situation.”

As far as future flooding is concerned, “it looks fairly decent out there overall,” said Jeff Braun from the National Weather Station in Riverton. Braun said that especially in light of the cold weather in the forecast for this week, water levels have already crested. Precipitation, he said, could bring them up again, but paired with cooler temperatures slowing down snowmelt, “it’s probably not gonna make that big of a difference overall.” 

The Snake River has not reached flood levels, and is not expected to. NWS predicts it will crest at 9.19 feet—just below the 10-foot flood stage. It’s still roaring at about 30,000 cubic feet per second, which is the highest it’s been since 1997 when it reached a record-breaking 38,000 CFS. Teton County Emergency Management Coordinator Rich Ochs says mitigation is almost impossible because of the sheer velocity of it. “We’re putting in boulders the size of cars that are getting swept downstream,” he said. “It’s a heavy equipment type of flood fight.”

But the biggest concern for many county residents is creeks and tributaries, Ochs said. “That’s what’s gonna sneak up on people. There are folks living on Cache Creek who have never seen it this high before.”

Ochs said that tributaries tend to crest late in the afternoon and early in the evening, so concerned residents should pay extra attention then. Teton County is offering sandbags to anyone concerned about flooding, and “quite a few people” have already claimed theirs.

Pilgrim Creek, Leigh Lake, Ditch Creek and Little Granite Creek are also closed to vehicle and recreational traffic. Ochs offers a message for “anybody planning on recreating in the forest: don’t assume that because the Forest Service didn’t post a picture on Facebook or there’s not a barricade, that a road is safe. Problems are being reported on a daily basis. Roads are washing out. If you cross a stream early in the day, don’t assume you’re going to be able to make it out later in the evening.”

Ochs said he and his team were preparing for the worst after such a heavy winter, but hoping for the best. “We all knew it was gonna come eventually,” Ochs said. “I was hoping that we would just keep getting snow. Every day we pushed further into summer, we were rolling the dice … winter definitely took its toll, we were hoping maybe we’ll get lucky with the spring.”

But Teton County had no such luck. Ochs emphasized that a lack of injuries or worse, fatalities, is actually lucky. “We’re still pretty fortunate,” he said.

Ochs and his team will remain hard at work trying to get things back to normal. Through it all, he’s tried to keep things in perspective.

“For the time being, I’m thankful for what we’ve got,” he said. “But we’re not gonna let our guard down.” PJH

Comments

comments


About Shannon Sollitt

You must be logged in to post a comment Login