Billings, Mont. — Harmful floodwaters ripping through Yellowstone National Park threatened communities downstream where residents cleaned up the mess and kept an eye on rising river levels. In contrast, others braced for the economic fallout while the park remains closed.
After wiping out miles of roads and untold bridges in the park and flooding hundreds of homes in surrounding communities, the seething water threatened to cut off fresh drinking water to Montana’s largest city.
Officials on Wednesday asked Billings residents to conserve water as there was a 24- to 36-hour supply after a combination of heavy rain and rapidly melting mountain snow caused the Yellowstone River to rise to historic levels, forcing them to shut down the water treatment plant.
“None of us planned a 500-year flood on the Yellowstone when we designed these facilities,” said Debi Meling, the city’s director of public works.
Though he was optimistic the river would drop quickly enough for the plant to resume operations before the tanks were emptied. Still, the 110,000-population city stopped watering parks and boulevards, and firefighters filled its trucks with river water.
Cory Mottice of the National Weather Service in Billings said the river was expected to rise Wednesday evening and sink below the minor flood stage, 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) mid to late Thursday.
The unprecedented flash flooding earlier this week displaced a dozen of the more than 10,000 visitors from the country’s oldest park.
Remarkably, no one was injured or killed by raging waters that tore houses from their foundations and pushed a river off course – possibly permanently – possibly requiring damaged roads to be rebuilt at a safer distance.
On Wednesday, residents of Red Lodge, Montana, a gateway to the north end of the park, used shovels, wheelbarrows, and a pump to remove thick mud and debris from a flooded home along the banks of Rock Creek.
“We thought we had it, and then a bridge fell out. And it diverted the creek, and the water started rolling in the back, broke a basement window, and started filling my basement,” Pat Ruzich said. “And then I stopped. It was like the water won.”
While Yellowstone’s flooding is rare, it’s the type of event becoming more common as the planet warms, experts say.
“We know for sure that climate change is causing more natural disasters, more fires, bigger fires, and more floods and bigger floods,” said Robert Manning, a retired professor of environment and natural resources at the University of Vermont. “These things are going to happen, and they probably will. Happen much more intensely.”
Park officials say the northern half of the park will likely remain closed all summer, devastating to local economies that rely on tourism.
The rains hit as hotels in the region overflowed with summer tourists in recent weeks. The surge in tourists doesn’t wane until the fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone’s busiest months. Last year, more than 4 million visitors were counted through the park.
The season had gotten off to a good start for Cara McGary, who leads groups through the Lamar Valley to see wolves, bison, elk, and bears. She had seen more than 20 grizzly bears on some days this year.
Now that the road from Gardiner to northern Yellowstone has washed away, the wildlife is still there, but it’s out of McGary’s reach, and her guide service, In Our Nature, suddenly runs into trouble.
“The summer we’ve been preparing for is nothing like the summer we’re going to have,” she said. “This is a loss of turnover of 80% to 100% during the high season.”
Flying Pig Adventures, a Gardiner-based company that guides rafting trips on the Yellowstone River, will have to rely more on tourists staying in Montana now that roads to the park are impassable, co-owner Patrick Sipp said Wednesday.
It’s a blow akin to how COVID-19 temporarily shut down Yellowstone two years ago, reducing June 2020 tourist visits by about a third before rebounding during the rest of that summer.
“We are definitely a resilient company; we have a very strong crew,” said Sipp. “But it’s devastating. You just hate to see things like that in the community. We just hope we can get back out there relatively soon.”
Meanwhile, as the water recedes, park managers focus on the massive effort to rebuild many miles of destroyed roads and possibly hundreds of faded bridges, many built for backcountry hikers. Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said assessment teams won’t be able to count the damage until next week.
Kelly Goonan, an associate professor at Southern Utah University and an expert in national parks and recreation management, said rebuilding will be a long process.
““This is something that we will definitely feel the effects of in the coming years,” Goonan said.
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writers Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.