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Historic 2022 flood clean-up nearly complete, but Montana waterways remain clogged with debris

1 million+ cubic yards of debris remain
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Posted at 5:06 PM, Sep 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-20 10:55:04-04

STILLWATER COUNTY, Montana — It's been over a year since last summer’s historic flooding in Montana. Since then, piles of debris have been removed from Motnana’s waterways, but a lot more remains, and that has some worried.

“The state-managed debris project has been helpful to get some of the debris out, but we still have some known shortcomings. We still have some known debris out there,” says David Stamey, Stillwater County chief of emergency services.

Take a drive around Stillwater County with Stamey, and you’ll see the historic floods are far from a distant memory. Massive debris still clogs the river, like a huge fallen tree under the Fireman’s Point fishing access bridge.

“We do know when we get high water where we are going to see the impacts,” says Stamey. "If we have a 100-year flood or a significant high water, there’s still a really good chance that that debris is going to move down, so does it beaver dam up and create additional flooding? Does it damage a bridge?”

And if damage happens, where does the liability fall? Much of the debris has been removed by the state Disaster and Emergency Services project, a partnership with FEMA. DES says the final number is 150,000 cubic yards, but Montana DES estimates there’s still one to two million cubic yards left.

“I wish that we could get more debris out,” says Stamey.

Noel Keogh is one of the many landowners dealing with all that debris. The water was pocket-high on his ranch near Absarokee.

“This program with DES and FEMA has sure helped clean up the tin and toilets and all the things that came down from the seven houses above us that washed out,” says Keogh, owner of Key O Inc. Ranch.

Several tons of debris on his property have also been moved to these incineration piles. All of it is expected to be burned in the next few weeks.

“There was a lot of fence that got torn out or flooded over and laid down. I’ve still got some of that to get to, but you’ve got to eat an elephant one bite at a time,” says Keogh.

One bite at a time as piles of potential problems may impact Montana waterways next time it floods.