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Snowmelt fills raging Spokane River

Sightseers and passers-by snap photos of a roaring Spokane Falls on Saturday in downtown Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Sightseers and passers-by snap photos of a roaring Spokane Falls on Saturday in downtown Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Ben and Bobbi Swanson rode their bikes to Riverfront Park late last week and joined a legion of other people who were there for the same purpose – to view the dramatic Spokane Falls under a mild February day.

“It’s free entertainment,” Ben Swanson said as the couple prepared to enjoy some snacks from a park bench overlooking the Upper Falls.

Not far away, Jim Sletager and his family were strolling near Spokane City Hall seeking a way to get down to the base of the Lower Falls.

Gates to the park area below City Hall were locked and signs at the front of the Spokane Tribal Gathering Place said the area was closed for the winter.

“We come down here at least a couple of times a year,” Sletager said.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said the plaza and park area were closed to protect people from slipping on snow or ice during cold weather.

Coddington said mist from the falls freezes at night and becomes treacherous for pedestrians.

He said the city might reconsider the closure in light of the mild weather this month.

The Spokane River was forecast to crest Saturday and today after warm weather and rain dating back to Feb. 4 unleashed a torrent of runoff from the mountains around Lake Coeur d’Alene, which is the source of the river.

The flow was measured at 22,200 cubic feet per second, or 166,000 gallons of water rushing by with every tick of the clock.

That is more than four times normal flow for mid-February, but well below the record flow of 35,400 cfs in 1996.

The river gauge near Cochran Street in west Spokane is the oldest continuously operating gauge in the state, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey. It was established in 1921.

The river was measured at just over 25 feet Saturday afternoon with the crest forecast to be at 25.13 feet Saturday night. Flood stage is at 27 feet.

High flows on the Spokane River typically last for two weeks as the level rises slowly over several days and then subsides slowly as Lake Coeur d’Alene drains its excess water. Natural rock formations at Post Falls slow the runoff into Spokane.

The lake crested Friday night at 2,129.94 feet above sea level. Flood stage on the lake is at 2,133 feet.

The St. Joe River at St. Maries stopped rising on Wednesday just 9 inches below flood stage, and the Coeur d’Alene River at Cataldo rose about a foot above flood stage last Sunday night. Both were flowing within their banks by week’s end.

On Thursday, Spokane tied a 117-year-old daily high temperature record of 58 degrees from 1898.

That came after Spokane set three consecutive daily records on Feb. 6 at 57 degrees and on Feb. 7 and 8 at 54 degrees. The records were part of an unusually early five-day streak of highs at 50 degrees or warmer from Feb. 5 through 9.

Ellie Kelch, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Spokane, said the five-day string of 50 degrees or warmer was the earliest on record in Spokane. Records date back to 1881.

John Abatzoglou, an associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho, said the mild midwinter weather is the result of a “stubborn pattern that’s been bringing warm air from the south to the west. It’s been stuck in place for a couple of months.”

“It’s basically taken what snowpack we had,” he said.

Abatzoglou, an expert in climate change, said this winter’s weather is consistent with what climate models are predicting by 2050 under global warming.

He said low snowpack is a concern because the region doesn’t have a lot of reservoir storage. “If the water runs off now, rather than in June, we’ll be susceptible to drought impacts,” he said.

The water equivalent of the snowpack in the Spokane region was at 65 percent of normal on Friday. Upper Columbia areas to the west were at 83 percent. North Idaho was at 65 percent of normal.

Forecasters said temperatures are going to drop back to the upper 40s starting today, but ample sunshine is in the forecast through Thursday at least.

Low temperatures below freezing are also forecast.