With early winter snows deepening in the mountains and creating Christmas card scenes in towns and cities, many Idahoans’ thoughts turn to …
Sorry, I’d rather be writing a more traditional holiday column today. But after last winter’s big snowpack and the resulting flooding, what better time than the beginning of snow season to look at what we learned from this year’s flooding and how to prepare for what could be coming.
Last winter set a record for depth of snow on the ground in Boise, to say nothing of anxiety levels for water managers and homeowners. The reservoir system, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had the second highest inflows since record keeping began. The Boise River was the highest many of us had ever seen it. If you lived on the Bench or in the Foothills, you counted your blessings. If you lived in the flood plain, you worried.
If the river had risen another thousand cubic feet per second, according to people I spoke with at the Boise Public Works Department, more homes and neighborhoods would have flooded.
Mine would have been one of them. Some of the folks in our neighborhood, the Woodwards included, moved things to higher ground. We lugged stereo components, musical instruments, small pieces of furniture and other belongings to the second floor. Most of our furniture spent two months in a storage unit. It was not a happy time.
What kind of winter will we have this time around?
The Farmers Almanac is predicting above normal precipitation and below normal temperatures. Great if you’re a skier, snowboarder or farmer, but not so great if you live in the flood zone.
The National Weather Service predictions, which are more scientific, also call for above average precipitation this winter. Conditions for the La Nina ocean current that affects our weather in the Northwest, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Jay Breidenbach, are similar to what they were at this time last year. That doesn’t necessarily mean a repeat of “Snowmageddon,” though.
“A wetter than normal winter is expected,” Breidenbach said. “But you can’t put a whole lot of stock in long-range forecasts. It’s predicted to be a wet winter, but it may be only slightly wetter. The message we try to get out to people is that despite some mild winters in recent years, Idaho is a pretty snowy place. Last winter was a reminder of that. We need to be prepared even in a normal winter.”
Let’s say we do get a wetter than normal winter or, God forbid, one with as much or more snow than last winter. What did the public agencies charged with protecting us learn last winter and spring that could make a difference?
What worked, what needs work
“After the threat passed, we had a lessons-learned session,” Rob Bousfield, facilities program manager with the Boise Public Works Department, said. “One of the things that went right is that a cooperative effort involving all of the government entities in the county worked pretty well.”
One example: the Ada County Highway District redirected cameras normally focused on traffic to monitor rising water levels in the river. That helped those responsible for adjusting flows and responding to emergencies.
An incident management team that had never existed before was created to deal with the threat. Ada County, its cities and police and fire departments all were represented. If significant flooding happens this spring, Bousfield said, the team will be reactivated, with the lessons learned still fresh in mind.
What didn’t go as well as it might have?
An Army Corps of Engineers officer acknowledged earlier this year that water managers were behind the curve in releasing water to create storage space in the reservoirs. Currently, according to Gina Baltrusch, a Corps public affairs specialist, the reservoirs “have more space than is required by the flood control rule curves, and basin conditions do not warrant higher releases. … ”
That can change quickly. Water managers nimbly averted what could have been much worse flooding this spring, but people who live near the river will breathe easier if they don’t get behind the curve again.
The city, Bousfield said, could have done a better job this spring of “getting information out to the public so there aren’t conflicting messages. An example would be what happened with sandbags. We didn’t give them to anyone who wanted them, but a lot of the downstream jurisdictions did, so people thought we were. Sandbags can do more harm than good if you put them in the wrong places. They’re meant to protect crawlspaces and doorways, not to build a barrier around your whole house.”
Another thing the city could have done better and will try to do better in the future, he added, is giving the public more information when it counts.
“It won’t change the situation, but it will let people know the situation. They’ll know what we know about the risks. You would use that information to decide whether to go on vacation or stay home, or maybe whether to move things into storage.”
I was hoping he’d say the city would build berms in places where water can flood neighborhoods. That won’t happen.
“The only thing we’re doing is repairing areas that were eroded last winter. You have to be careful. If you build something in one place, it could make it worse somewhere else.”
He added, however, that sandbags would be distributed in vulnerable neighborhoods. Neighborhood work parties would use them as needed.
Bottom line: Much of what needs to be done to protect our homes is up to us. One of the best things you can do if you live in the flood plain is buy flood insurance. Banks require it if you have a mortgage, and even if your house is paid for it can be a smart investment.
Especially with premiums expected to rise.
“New flood plain maps will be coming out in 2019,” Boise Flood Plain Coordinator Jason Taylor said. “When that happens, rates will go up. If you have a policy in place before then, your rates won’t go up.”
Homeowners can make changes to protect their property and lower their flood insurance premiums. Air conditioners can be placed on elevated platforms. Sheds can be anchored to keep them from floating downstream. Homes can be modified and new homes built in ways that keep them safe. For more information, click on www.fema.gov/techbul.shtm.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and a winter like last one won’t happen again for a long time, but most experts agree that an even bigger flood is inevitable at some point. Preparations now could make all the difference then.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Got an idea for a column subject for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.