The Great Flood of ‘22: One Year Later

July 2023

And then the rains came… and came… and came.

On the morning of June 13, Friends of Park County’s co-founder and Board President was in Jackson Hole to speak at a conference organized by Future West.

Shortly before he was going to offer his remarks he received an urgent phone call, telling him to return home immediately because of flooding in Mill Creek threatening his property. Schroeder had a harrowing drive home through epic flooding in the region. Meanwhile, back in Jackson, evacuees from the Park began arriving in the afternoon.

On June 12-13, 2022, an atmospheric river deluged southern Park County and the northern part of Yellowstone National Park received a combined 7.5-9.5 inches of rain and snowmelt in a 24-hours period. The result was a once in every 500-year flood in Paradise Valley.

(Washington Post “In maps, photos and videos, see the full force of Yellowstone’s floods.”)

Dennis Glick’s prescient 2021 warning about the Yellowstone flood hazard.

On May 18, 2021, Dennis Glick a resident of Livingston for more than 30 years (and one of our Advisors) testified to the Livingston City Commission in support of Friends of Park County’s recommendation to revise the draft Growth Policy to not to allow additional development in the Yellowstone flood plain:

The Planning Board’s great improvements to the draft Growth Policy are another sign of changes for the better, changes in perspective toward how our growth occurs. 

But some things have not changed and may actually be getting worse.

In that category is flooding of the Yellowstone River, flooding which I have witnessed over the past three decades.  

Our weather is becoming more erratic and severe.  All over the country, flooding that was once rare is becoming more frequent.  

Under those circumstances, why should our Growth Policy include a Future Land Use Map with a land use designation that could allow up to 100 new homes on the Ninth Street Island?  (The Island is designated as Very Low Density Residential, which, when you read the definition in the Growth Policy, allows up to 2 homes per acre.) 

What will the City Commissioners say to future residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed or to the survivors of someone who died when they ask why the city decided to allow all those homes to be built in a FEMA designated floodway?

The City Commissioners did not respond to Glick’s testimony and declined to make those changes.

One month before the Great Flood of ’22 County the voters were far more concerned about wildfires than flooding.

Their complacency may have reflected the public complacency captured a year later in Friends of Park County’s poll of County voters. When asked in May of 2022 about various policies for managing growth and development, the voters were very concerned about the risks from wildfires but thought addressing the risks from flooding was much less important.

(To watch a short video about that poll and others, click here.)

A month after that poll, bridges in Paradise Valley were being washed out, Ninth Street Island homes and businesses were flooding, and the Livingston Health Care hospital was evacuated.

So, what have we learned from the Great Flood of ’22?

One thing we learned was that Glick was right about increased flood risks and the changing weather, a lesson the rest of the country continues to learn.

Another thing we learned was that the impacts from the Great Flood of ’22 were broader and longer lasting than the immediate property damage. An article in the Bozeman Chronicle on the anniversary of the flood (one in a series) reported:

The Yellowstone River looks, and moves, differently than it did a year ago. The floodwaters that breached Paradise Valley farms, ranchlands and fishing access sites last June also changed the river channels, depositing silt on hay grounds and eroding acres of land along the Yellowstone.

As people continue repairs, the flooding has spurred conversations about where and how people should build along the river in the future.

Isabel Hicks, Bozeman Chronicle June 16, 2023 “Changing Channels: Park County Ranchers,    Landowners Adapt to Altered Yellowstone River.

The flooding broke the sewage pipe than ran from Mammoth Hot Springs to the treatment plant in Gardiner dumping 200,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Gardiner River which then flowed into the Yellowstone. The Yellowstone may have also eroded into other septic fields into the Yellowstone. Friends of Park County’s voter poll showed broad bi-partisan support for banning septic sewage systems within 500 yards of the Yellowstone River:

Support by Park County Voters for Proposals for Regulating Development

Proposal All Voters Democrats Independents Republicans
Banning new septic sewage systems near the Yellowstone River 73% 77% 78% 65%

But have we learned enough?

Advocates for a proposed $34 million recreation Wellness Center have recommended having in built at the Civic Center next to the Yellowstone River. In March, Wendy Weaver, director of Montana Freshwater Partners, a Park County resident, and a civil engineer, testified to the City Commission in opposition to the Civic Center location saying “it was a miracle” the levee held during the flood given that the dike and levee were not FEMA-approved structures.

According to a news article in The Enterprise Weaver testified, “We should definitely reconsider investing huge sums of public dollars and other funding into a facility that’s going to be located in this high-risk area along the river.” Weaver said. “I think flood hazards are considered one of Livingston’s highest risks, according to the county’s hazard mitigation plan, and an important strategy for minimizing flood damage in the future is to avoid building in high-risk zones like the channel migration zone and the floodplain along the river.”

On June 20th, the Livingston City Commission took additional testimony on the project.  Dennis Glick testified again, commenting, “Having lived…. a block from the River for the last 30 years, I have a hell of a lot of respect for it and I don’t think we can really predict what it is going to be doing in an era of climate change…”

His warning wasn’t heeded the first time, so will we see how much we have learned since the Great Flood of ’22.