GRAND COULEE DAM, Wash. —The giant concrete dams of the Pacific Northwest are overflowing with water. Wyoming has deployed National Guard troops to pile up sandbags. A federal official compares the impending situation to a bucking bull ready to storm out of his chute.
States across the West are bracing for major flooding in the coming weeks once a record mountain snowpack starts melting and sending water gushing into rivers, streams and low-lying communities. The catalyst will be warmer temperatures forecast for the next week that could set off a rapid thaw.
Randy Julander, a supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, says flooding this year could be worse than anyone has ever seen. Julander said in a typical year the weather warms gradually, allowing snow in the mountains to melt slowly and ease into rivers and streams over time. That's not the case this year after a cool, rainy spring.
"It's all just sitting there, sitting there, sitting there. Everyone knows it's going to come down, it's just when and how quick that we're all waiting for," he said. "The bull is basically sitting in the chute and the gates are already open. He's just not coming out to play yet, but when he does I anticipate he's really going to be ticked off and bucking hard."
At Grand Coulee Dam, gigantic cascades of water are being released to make room for spring snowmelt that is expected to fill the reservoir. A constant roar emanates from the structure as surging water churns the Columbia River below the dam into a white froth.
The dam is 500 feet tall, a mile across, and one of the largest concrete structures on Earth. It is the centerpiece of a network of dams built across the Pacific Northwest during the New Deal era that essentially act as a giant plumbing system for the region — and these days the pipes are overflowing.