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Billings backup water intake system offline two years after historic floods

$3 million repair project planned
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Posted at 3:24 PM, Jun 13, 2024

BILLINGS — The city of Billings could have a water capacity issue. That’s because its backup intake system in the middle of the Yellowstone River is still offline and severely damaged following flooding in 2022. The public works department has a plan to fix it, and it's currently in the bidding process.

The scene exactly two years ago was intense, as cottonwood trees and debris mangled the catwalk leading to the city’s backup water system. It’s still broken and so is the intake system.

“This whole thing shifted off of the bridge pier. The access to the intake was damaged, the handrail was damaged. We also have some screening issues that were damaged from the flood,” says Louis Engels, city public works water quality superintendent.

All of this makes the walkway unsafe for workers, and the system the city relies on for clean drinking water when river levels are low, due to drought or ice jams, unusable.

“The scenario in which we would use this is if the drought got fairly severe to the point where we couldn't get water into the other intake,” says Engels.

The backup intake is just upstream from the primary system. They are not far apart, but both are critical.

“This intake is ice jam resilient,” says Engels.

But when the backup intake isn’t working, it has potential to create panic like in 2022, which saw a run on bottled water at several larges stores in town.

“It was the most challenging day in my eight-year career here,” says Engels. “I mean, the water was above that catwalk right there, so it was incredible. Myself and several staff, I think we ended up working 36 hours straight.”

Public works and the Montana Department of Disaster and Emergency Services have a $3 million plan in place to avoid a water shortage.

“This Billings architectural and engineering project for the water and intake system is one of our highest priorities,” says Jake Ganieany, recovery mitigation bureau chief of Montana Disaster Emergency Services. “So we're actually going to build the intake a little bit higher, four feet higher to get it out of the flood zone,” says Engels.

City officials say permitting and working in an undammed river is why this project takes time.

“We're working closely with our partners at FEMA to ensure that we continue pushing this project through to get it completed by the end of 2025,” says Ganieany. “We talk almost daily with the city of Billings and we meet weekly with FEMA and the engineers on their contractors, and we’re pushing this as hard as we can.”

The project is now in the bidding phase and the city says we can expect cranes and workers soon, so residents can continue to rely on clean drinking water.

The city broke ground in March on a new west end reservoir, designed to meet the city’s increasing water demand. The project is set for completion by the end of 2026.

The city serves 120,000 residents who use 20 million gallons of water per day on average, but during peak summer hours that number jumps to 60 million gallons, nearly maxing out the city’s capacity. The west end reservoir is set to increase capacity by 18 million gallons for a total of 78 million gallons.

Currently, during peak summer hours, if all water treatment plants went offline, the city would have eight hours of water storage that could be stretched to 36 hours with water conservation efforts like pausing laundry and lawn watering.