BILLINGS — Gov. Greg Gianforte stopped in Billings Wednesday to push for a new proposal that would help local governments protect against natural disasters, including the slow-moving failure of the Billings Canal that is threatening homes in the area.
The irrigation ditch known as the Billings Canal is 120 years old and has a history of seepage. It's caused all kinds of damage for many families living below and some fear bigger problems could be coming if problems with the ditch aren’t addressed now.
The above image from 2019 shows cracked foundations and bowing walls, the aftermath of groundwater that seeped out of the Billings Canal into a house that sits right below the ditch.
“As the city grew up into our ditch, unfortunately, there weren’t any precautions taken for any of these disasters,” said Jim Stott, the Billings Bench Water Association Board President on Wednesday.
That house is now one of several abandoned homes that MTN discovered when venturing into the neighborhood on Vuecrest Street. Many have been left vacant because of those problems with the ditch, especially since the slope behind it is moving.
“The fact that the hill is sliding makes this canal even unstable. I understood from KC (Williams, Yellowstone County emergency management director) that we think the ditch itself is moving downhill,” Gianforte said during a tour of the area.
If the ditch was full of water, the impact could be catastrophic.
“That’s roughly 260 million gallons of water that would be dumped into the neighborhood below which puts us at significant risk of loss of life, obvious loss of property and infrastructure stuff,” said Williams.
Gianforte is urging the Legislature to move forward with his proposal to establish a $100 million Local Disaster Resiliency Fund, which would direct part of the state's budget surplus to help local governments mitigate disasters.
“And here’s the best part, for every dollar the state puts in, the federal authorities match it with nine additional dollars,” said Gianforte.
This slope failure project would cost an estimated $25 million. Several other projects across the state have also been identified, including improving a levee in Glasgow and a power line project in the Flathead.
Back in Billings, the Billings Canal is being closely monitored with sensors.
“Hopefully that will give us a heads up early enough to do something if we had a catastrophic failure but we would know about it sooner at least,” Williams said.
However, a long-term solution is needed. Seven homeowners living underneath the ditch sued the Billings Bench Water Association, asking them to take responsibility, saying their homes were no longer livable.
“I really hope this legislation goes through ‘cuz it can provide the match fundings we need to do a big project,” Stott said.