State Agencies Advise Recreators to Avoid Flood Events

Flooding Creates Potential Human Health & Recreational Risks In Rivers Across MT

Helena —River recreators should avoid contact with water during and for at least two weeks after flood events. Floodwaters have already impacted communities in the Yellowstone River basin, and more flooding is anticipated elsewhere in the state, such as in the Flathead River basin and Missoula County. Floodwaters can carry potentially dangerous debris and may contain chemicals and bacteria from damaged or overwhelmed wastewater treatment facilities and flooded homes, businesses, and agricultural fields. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has issued closures for Fishing Access Sites along the Stillwater, Yellowstone, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers due to safety hazards related to collapsing banks, debris jams, and exposed or submerged infrastructure ( Sites are being reopened on a case-by-case basis as site conditions and safety concerns allow. 

“It’s likely more floating and boating hazards will emerge as waters recede,” said Hope Stockwell, Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division Administrator. “We’re opening sites as quickly as possible, but boaters and other recreators should still use an abundance of caution when on the water.”

Recreationists should also be aware that rivers and creeks could be contaminated with harmful bacteria. This is especially true downstream of communities where widespread flooding occurred because water treatment systems may take time to return to normal operation even after floodwaters recede.  

The Department of Environmental Quality monitors water quality across the state and will conduct additional floodwater monitoring in areas where monitoring projects are already ongoing, such as the Yellowstone River basins. While this may help identify contamination, sampling will not determine the source of contaminants – whether it is from overwhelmed water treatment facilities or general runoff from other dispersed sources.

“Even during moderate rain events, it’s common to find high levels of E. coli bacteria in rivers and creeks,” said Darrin Kron, DEQ Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Section Supervisor. “With historic rain and flood events occurring in parts of Montana, people should take extra precautions and avoid drinking, fishing, and swimming in rivers after flooding.”

Where public drinking water supplies are of concern, DEQ works with municipalities and certified operators to inform residents of boil orders and advisories and to ensure the safety of water systems when they return to service. Public water systems that experience or anticipate issues related to flooding should contact DEQ for support and guidance. The public can find additional flood-related resources on the DEQ Flooding Resources web page.

“Our technical assistance staff are proactively communicating with wastewater treatment operators,” said Jon Kenning, DEQ Water Protection Bureau Chief. “Most facilities are currently operating as normal, though the main issue is poor treatment capabilities where facilities are dealing with high inflows.”

According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), ingesting floodwater that contains even small amounts of bacteria (such as E. coli) can lead to diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes vomiting or fever.

“Residents should only use water from a safe source for drinking and washing or preparing food,” said Magdelena Scott, DPHHS Communicable Disease and Epidemiology Section. “Additionally, exposure to contaminated floodwater can cause wound infections, skin rash, or tetanus. The best way to protect yourself is to stay out of floodwater. If you do come into contact with potentially contaminated water, wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible, take care of wounds and seek medical attention if necessary. Wash contaminated clothes with hot water and detergent before wearing them again.”

The DPHHS Environmental Laboratory is available to conduct water testing for communities as needed. For more information, contact the laboratory at 800-821-7284. 

DPHHS has also created a Flood Cleanup Health Tips brochure. The document provides information related to disinfecting water, food safety, health and hygiene, and mosquito and vector control.

 DPHHS encourages Montanans to utilize local county and Tribal health department officials as a resource for health questions specific each jurisdiction.


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