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As canal issues continue, Billings officials navigate the liability of property damage and loss to water users

Posted at 3:08 PM, Jun 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-09 19:50:29-04

BILLINGS - Even though water is running again through the Billings Bench Water Association’s canal, officials with the City of Billings are trying to work with ditch officials to find ways to prevent further property damage and disruption to the water source from happening.

One option could be in the form of federal dollars if President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan makes it through Congress with bipartisan support, something Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski is keeping an eye on.

Another option is what state authorities and Montana’s federal delegation can do to help.

Whether it's vandalism, unstable soil, or a blockage in the canal, there’s no question the Billings Bench Water Association’s canal is a heated topic for some Billings neighborhoods.

RELATED: Billings canal repaired and flowing Wednesday after weekend overflow

Homes along Vuecrest Drive just below the canal have already been damaged and an active legal battle plays on between parties.

But even apart from that, questions remain surrounding who is liable.

“Property, life and safety is our primary responsibility as a city,” said Kukulski. “Sometimes we have to make decisions and take those actions and then afterward determine, 'Hey, who's the liable party here who needs to pay for this?'”

Kukulski says when officials got word last weekend that the canal was seeping water and needed to be immediately drained, putting nearly 100 homes at risk of catastrophe, officials didn’t waste time trying to figure out who’s at fault.

Instead, the city sprung into action notifying residents and contacting experts for the next steps.

“We have some really pretty solid data and information that said this hillside needs to be stabilized, so we didn’t waste any time,” said Kukulski.

Talks with experts about the stability of the hillside have already been happening, according to Kukulski, and they will continue.

“Then we’ve been working within this case, with the Billings Bench Water Association, to kind of put them on notice, saying hey, they've got the ditch responsibility. We need to ensure that their ditch doesn't (cause), you know, catastrophic property damage or loss of life,” he said.

Studies have been done by the Billings Bench Water Association itself, showing data that the canal has been seeping water for years.

Back in October 2019, an MTN Investigates revealed that the Billings Bench Water Association was working with its own engineer on a large-scale plan to make improvements to the Billings canal.

That engineer’s report said the canal loses 790 million gallons of water a year due to seepage through well-draining soils.

“Based on what I'm learning, these have been issues for decades,” said Kukulski. “So whether there'll be a catastrophic failure like in 1937, that was the biggest flood you know in Billings history, Lord willing, hopefully not in my lifetime or yours, but I can't guarantee that that won't happen and so we're trying to minimize that risk as much as possible.”

He says the canal already reached out to the governor’s office months ago.

“We're kind of rolling up our sleeves and trying to understand where the liabilities lie,” he said. “You know, this ditch served for over 120 years.”

For now, though, when the canal leaks, it poses risks to the farmers and ranchers who depend on that water and to those living below, something city officials say is a top concern for them.