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Bracing for high waters

MOSCOW – Latah County is bracing for more rain and potential flooding, just as county commissioners move forward to declare a disaster over recent weather events.

Much of the region is under a flood watch through Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service in Spokane. The Latah County commissioners discussed the forecast Monday, along with the next steps toward a disaster declaration to be made to the state.

“With declaring that disaster – if we are getting more rain, we could most likely be doing the right thing in preparation for any more damage that could be coming down the road,” said Commissioner Dave McGraw.

A more severe flood warning is in effect for Latah and Whitman counties near the Palouse River, according to the Spokane weather service. The river could swell to 19 feet high tonight, with another peak at 18 feet predicted for early Thursday.

“It has the potential for major flooding and could be as high as we’ve seen it get in 20 years,” said Katherine Rowden, service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Spokane. She added that the Palouse River reached just over 22 feet during the flood of 1996.

A “major” flood event is defined as a water level of at least 17 feet for the Palouse River, which is expected to be at least 15 feet high through Thursday night.

The Spokane weather service predicts Potlatch and Palouse will start to see flooding of some parks and low-lying fields when the Palouse River reaches 15 feet. At 16.5 feet high, the Lions Club Community Park in Palouse will be submerged. At the level of 17.5 feet, the Palouse River is expected to flood over Flannigan Creek Road downstream of Potlatch. Should the river reach 19 feet high, forecasters predict major flooding between Potlatch and Palouse.

Rainfall predicted for today likely won’t help. In Pullman, half an inch to three-quarters of an inch of rain is expected on top of ongoing issues with ponding in fields and high-water levels in other rivers and streams.

“Any contributions we get from rain and melting snow is going to make the situation worse,” said Greg Koch, forecaster for the Spokane weather service.

The National Weather Service’s flood watch applies to Latah, Nez Perce and Lewis counties in Idaho, as well as Whitman, Asotin and Garfield counties in Washington. Koch said the biggest bursts of rainfall are likely tonight and Thursday night. Water may be slow to drain because of soil that’s saturated with snow and somewhat frozen, and rock falls and localized flooding are possible, Koch said.

The hit to Latah County comes as Idaho has recognized disasters in nine counties. Latah County commissioners discussed moving forward with a disaster declaration Wednesday, as winter storms and flooding have caused damages in excess of the $134,451 threshold set by the state.

Mike Neelon, disaster services coordinator for Latah County, said before Monday’s meeting that necessary repairs to Rock Creek Bridge in Potlatch are estimated to cost between $200,000 and $300,000. The bridge is not passable because of damage from ice jams last month.

The city of Moscow also is looking at higher expenses related to winter weather. According to a letter from Les MacDonald, the city’s public works director, Moscow has seen inflated snow removal costs and damage to streets initially estimated at $300,000.

Both the cities of Potlatch and Troy have exceeded their budgets for snow removal, road repairs and other expenses related to winter weather. Potlatch is $18,000 over its budget, and Troy has surpassed its budget by $10,000.

There’s some uncertainty regarding whether the state will recognize Latah County’s declaration of a disaster, but the commissioners opted to move forward because “it doesn’t hurt to ask,” said Commissioner Richard Walser.

“The declaration is definitely the first step in getting the ball rolling,” said Robert Feeley, north central area field officer for the Idaho Office of Emergency Management.

The commissioners may consider a draft declaration as early as Wednesday.