Pushed by record mountain stream flows, the Spokane River thundered to its highest level in more than two decades Monday.
Hundreds of people lined riverbanks and bridges to witness the roar and fury.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Jerry Holmberg as a giant column of water crashed from the spillway at Nine Mile Falls Dam into a caldron of brownish-white foam.
“It looks like a small Niagara,” the Spokane man said from a bridge just downstream.
The biggest crowds turned out in downtown Spokane where the landmark falls put on quite a show, one that hasn’t been seen so dramatically in this city for 22 years.
Drivers jockeyed for parking places, at times creating traffic tie-ups.
The river crested about a foot above flood stage during the morning and held there through the day.
At 38,500 cubic feet per second, Monday’s torrent was five times the average February flow.
“It’s overpowering,” said Madeline Turnock from a safe vantage point in the sunshine at Riverfront Park.
The Gonzaga University student was capturing the churning falls on film. “What a rush of energy flowing down the river,” she said.
Susan Engle, of Coeur d’Alene, was on her fourth roll of film by midafternoon. She started her day-long tour at Lake Coeur d’Alene in the morning, and wound up standing in the spray beneath the Monroe Street Bridge.
“Two weeks ago, I was taking pictures of the ice,” she said.
The dramatic swing from brutal cold to torrential rain unleashed a deluge across the Pacific Northwest, including the North Idaho tributaries of the Spokane River.
Floods in four states forced thousands of people from their homes, closed hundreds of roads and turned dozens of counties into disaster areas.
But flooding on the Spokane River below Lake Coeur d’Alene has so far been minor. The river level will remain high but fall slowly over the next several days, according to the National Weather Service.
Greenacres residents Jack and Betty Moore took their Yorkshire terrier, Huckleberry, for a walk on the Centennial Trail Monday near the Harvard Road Bridge.
“I’ve never seen it this high,” said Jack Moore, a native of the Spokane Valley.
“And we’ve walked the Centennial Trail since before it was a trail,” added his wife.
Jet skiers were reported on the river near Spokane Community College.
So many people were treating the river as a tourist attraction that Spokane Police and the county Sheriff’s Department issued a joint warning.
“The banks of the Spokane River are saturated, unstable, slippery, and could collapse, sending persons into the water,” the statement said. Any rescue would be nearly impossible, authorities said.
At State Line near the Port of Entry, water breached the south bank and turned a low-lying plain into a wetland.
There were similar scenes downstream. Pine trees at Riverside State Park were bathed in knee-deep water. The furious flow rose to within a few feet of the footbridge at the Bowl and Pitcher overlook.
Upriver Drive east of Mission Avenue, along a stretch of apartment complexes and a retirement home, was flooded. Motorists on Upriver slowed to a crawl in a foot of water, sending out wakes.
A small section of Main Avenue in Peaceful Valley was also flooded.
Spokane’s dazzling display of rushing water came just three days after record or near-record river levels were reported on the main tributaries above Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The Coeur d’Alene River hit its highest level on record last Friday, according to the weather service.
Engineers at Washington Water Power Co. estimated the flow into Lake Coeur d’Alene peaked at 100,000 cubic feet per second Friday night and Saturday morning, almost three times the amount of water being discharged down the Spokane River on Monday.
That flow was the sixth highest since continuous measurements began in 1903. The record in 1933 was 46,800 cubic feet per second.
The weather service said estimates of a May 1894 flood are even higher - at 49,000 cfs.
But most of the people who were drawn to the riverbanks Monday cared more about the thrill of nature than scientific numbers.
Like the teenage boy who peered over a bridge at Riverfront Park and summed up the spectacle with one word.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Record Spokane River flows
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