BILLINGS — Evacuated residents from a section of the Billings North Side were allowed to return to their homes around 6 p.m. Sunday after water depths in the canal located north of the homes lowered to a safe level.
Local officials held a press conference Sunday afternoon to update the community after water overflowed from the canal's banks on the 2000 block of Burnstead Drive around 7: 15 a.m.
"It does remind us of the need to find long term solutions to make sure that the water can flow through the city safely. Not just with the Billings Bench Water Association, but with all of the ditches, because these things are critical to our economy, but they also do pose a risk to life and safety," said Billings Mayor Bill Cole.
Billings firefighters informed about 96 residences of a voluntary evacuation in the area north of 8th Avenue North between North 22nd and North 19th Streets. Some homes and apartment buildings received flood damage, the extent of which is unknown at this point, said KC Williams, director of Yellowstone County Disaster and emergency services.
Water cascaded through the streets, depositing dirt and other debris as it went.
About an hour after the overflow, a Red Cross and Montana Disaster and Emergency Services shelter was set up at Cedar Hall on the MetraPark campus. If people are unable to return home due to flood damage, they are asked to contact the Red Cross at 800-272-6668 for assistance or they can go to the shelter for help.
Williams said people with damages should notify their insurance companies and renters should contact their land lords. Cole said only a handful of residents utilized the shelter throughout the day.
A ditchrider with the Billings Bench Water Association first noticed the rising water level during their regular rounds at 6 a.m., which set off a multi-agency response that included the Billings Police Department, Billings Fire Department, Billings Public Works, Billings Bench Water Association and Castlerock Excavation.
The water level in the canal rose due to a blockage found in a tunnel near North 15th street that runs underneath the Rimrocks. Around 7:23 a.m, the blockage was found by a Billings Bench Water Association member. At 7:30 a.m., water flow into the canal was turned off.
The blockage was removed with the help of an excavator by 8:30 a.m.
“If Castlerock Excavation hadn’t gotten that plug undone, in a matter of 10 minutes it would have been the entire flow of the ditch running down through there. It would have been much, much worse," said Gary Davis, president of Billings Bench Water Association.
Davis estimated about 350 cubic feet per second of water to be moving through the ditch on an average day and that about 15 percent of that water was directed into the city during the overflow.
After the blockage was removed, the excavator operator moved the machine about 1500 feet west from the tunnel to reinforce the section of bank that overflowed. Erosion from the overflow and weakened the bank and the excavator tipped and sunk into the ground.
“Water was actually going over the north side of the ditch and coming back underneath the canal and we were losing water that way. As soon as we got the blockage taken care of, we had him walk down there with his excavator and as you can see, he got just a hair too close to the void," said Jim Stott a board member for Billings Bench Water Association.
Davis said the canal water level dropped about six inches per hour while it was bring drained.
The threat of a tunnel blockage was something that the Billings Bench Water Association and local emergency planning committee were aware of according to Stott and Cole. Stott said the water association worked with the city two years back to remove some rim rocks from the sandstone formation that could possibly have blocked the tunnel.
“It’s one of the things we talked about over the years that we’ve been very concerned about. If the tunnel ever did get blocked, we would have a serious situation on our hands," Stott said.
The overflow is the latest in a series of problems faced by the Billings Bench Water Association and city of Billings this season. The overflowed canal is one of several operated by the water association that stretch for miles from Laurel to Shepherd.
Last week, the canal was dry for days as water association crews worked to repair holes in the canal's liner. At the same time, city-hired geological teams analyzed cracks in the earth south of the canal that have formed near the tunnel under the rims.
But a dry canal means no water for the people who need it, including 115 residential users, four golf courses, a number of city parks, wells and acres of farmland. Stott said there's no timeline yet on when the water will be turned back on.
“We tell them we’re sorry and we’re going to try to remedy the situation as quickly as possible, because we do have 17,000 acres plus of agricultural farmland out there and everybody is screaming for water and on top of that, we’re in a very dry year," Stott said.
The area of overflow is about three blocks west of the canal bank that shifted back in 2019 and damaged the foundations of homes in the area.