FEMA awards $1.4 million to Laurel

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Laurel will receive $1.4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fix city water supply problems stemming from the 2011 floods.

At issue is the city’s ability to draw water from the Yellowstone River, which began flowing away from the city’s primary water intake during the 2011 flood. The community turned to FEMA for help redirecting Yellowstone water toward an intake; there are two in the river. In late 2012, Laurel officials put the price of the project at $1.6 million.

Heidi Jensen, Laurel chief administrative officer, said the FEMA grant will enable the city by late fall to restore 350 feet of the south bank lost since the 2011 flood. The work should direct the Yellowstone River north toward the city’s primary water intake, though the city is still in need of a permanent fix to its water-drawing problems. The permanent solution, expected by 2015, will also be paid for mostly with the FEMA grant.

Laurel has been in dire straits for water since 2011. In months when the Yellowstone River runs low, the city’s primary water intake protrudes from the water. Last spring, the city gouged a diversion channel through a sandbar on the north side of the Yellowstone to route water to an old water intake the city had previously abandoned, also because the river had migrated away. Roughly 5,500 cubic yards of sediment had to be removed from the north bank for the diversion channel, Jensen said.

The FEMA grant was announced Friday by U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Earlier, the two Democrats intervened as Laurel’s talks with state and federal government agencies ground to a near standstill. FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers are all involved with the Laurel project. The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Transportation departments are also involved.

Jensen said construction plans for this fall should be presented to the Laurel City Council for approval in September.