Every frozen river has places that whisper its secrets of ice jams and early spring floods. On the Yellowstone, downstream from Miles City, such a place is Tusler. When it speaks, Bud Peterson listens.
Tusler sits just east of Miles City, where the railroad bridge crossed to Kinsey, Peterson described Monday. There's a rock shelf there that crosses the river, making it a prime location for ice to pile up.
This time of year the disaster and emergency services coordinator for Custer County checks on Tusler almost daily.
A two-foot slab pressed to the floor of that rock shelf by a three-foot slab might just attract another five feet of ice, and soon the water upstream is rising, breaking loose the Yellowstone’s ice cap. In like a lion, out like a lamb, doesn’t matter. When the ice piles up at Tusler, March exits Custer County with a cottonwood-popping roar.
After a record-setting frozen February, there are stretches of the Yellowstone River where there’s no open water for miles. From Billings Heights to Huntley Project, just one tractor-sized knot of open river water broke through the buttoned up ice cap Monday.
In February, temperatures in Billings fell below below zero on 19 of 28 days. The temperatures to the east were colder still.
Irrigation districts and towns along the nation’s longest undammed river are bracing for an abrupt runoff, but hopeful winter’s grip softens slowly.
“With all that snow we’ve had, we’re worried about a sudden warming trend bringing the water up and starting the ice melting prematurely,” said James Brower, manager of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District. “It’s just speculation right now, but we’re looking at a number of things.”
The irrigation district stretches from Glendive to Sidney, where the Yellowstone runs wide and deep, having taken on the flows of the Tongue and Big Horn rivers. In 2014, ice flows near the irrigation project’s intake scrubbed the bark from the cottonwoods eight feet up the trunks and left dead fish scattered in the tall grass a good 50 yards from the Yellowstone’s normal channel.
The following January, upstream from Glendive the icy river claimed the Bridger pipeline, which was assumed to be buried 12 feet below the riverbed, but turned out to be fully exposed. The Bridger spill of almost 40,000 gallons of unrecovered oil into the Yellowstone was followed by the re-threading of several oil pipelines 35 feet or more below the riverbed.
Ice can reshape a river in many different ways, said Karen Boyd, a geomorphologist who has mapped the changes of many Montana rivers, including the Yellowstone. An icy cap on the river can make the channel perform more like a high-pressure hose. Without the ability the rise upward, unfrozen water is pushed down toward the river bottom, scouring a deeper path.
In cases where the ice collapses into the river, ice fastened to the bank can take land with it, Boyd said.
There are two runoff events on the Yellowstone most years. The first is when the snow melts from Montana’s plains, which causes a noticeable rise in the river, Boyd said. Ice jams are often associated with this runoff. A second high flow occurs later when the runoff of mountain snow reaches the Yellowstone.
The plains runoff doesn’t always trigger ice jams. Peterson recalls that last year, despite there being snow deeper than the fence posts along the Yellowstone river valley, the river flow wasn’t bad. That’s because the earth was parched from a terrible drought in 2017. The earth took its share and left little for the river, Peterson said.
There's no telling what the frozen Yellowstone will do this spring, but Peterson will keep driving out to Tusler to learn its secrets.