Billings Gazette: FEMA, Tester get a look at Billings water system

by Tom Lutey

Billings was in trouble. Amid a nearly once in a century flood, the Yellowstone River had reached the top of the 15-foot gate to the city’s Water Treatment Plant and was fouling the intake pond used to filter the river’s heaviest impurities.

The 10 pounds of chemicals crews usually add to the pond to bond with the river’s impurities weren’t cutting it. They added more, and then more and then still more until the dose was up to a thousand pounds. Simply put, the cold brown soup, which had swept away homes and bridges, overwhelmed wells and septic fields up stream, had become too much to treat as flood waters rose to 17 feet last Tuesday night.

It was time to shut the system down and advise Billings water users to go easy on what treated water was available.

“We took it offline at 11 p.m.,” said Debi Meling, Billings Public Works director. “We were back to normal about 20 hours later. We needed to get the power back on, that happened at about 8:30 p.m., to do a lot of things.”

The water supply to Montana’s largest city remained safe throughout, Meling said, but there was a time when had things not gone right, a boiling order might have been necessary. By Friday, she was giving the blow by blow to Deanne Criswell, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Meling’s staff was still unwinding preparations put in place earlier in the week. Sandbags used to gird the more sensitive parts of the operation still needed to be moved. Every low point in the network of roads around the intake contained a little sample from the historic flood. In the backdrop, the surface of the Yellowstone still roiled with cauliflower foam from the undercurrents below as a swift slurry of detritus floated by. The water level was again several feet below the steel intake gate.

The intake pond, about a size of a soccer field and girded with a rusty steel perimeter rising several feet above ground level, is the first stop for river water entering the Billings Water Treatment Plant. No matter the dirty color of the river, the pond is intended to be more aquamarine. The city uses a chemical coagulant to part the dirt from the water.

“It’s called polyaluminum chloride. It’s a coagulant,” Meling explained “What it does is it binds that dirt, the dirt is too small for us to settle out, so, it combines all that dirt into a block, as a piece of material, and it will settle out when it just sits here. And then we take the clean water off and put it on filters. It’s not a chemical people are drinking. That’s important.”

FEMA will consider ways to help the city with any disaster-related costs. Meling estimated the recovery at the water plant from the flood will be hundreds of thousands of dollars. FEMA assists primarily with public infrastructure when it comes to repairs. Making private property owners whole isn’t in the agency’s mission. As Criswell traveled the greater Yellowstone river drainage Friday, she was focused on roads, bridges, critical community infrastructure like water and sewer.

Tester said FEMA isn’t just about post-disaster repairs, but also infrastructure prevention. The City of Billings preparing for a substantial expansion if its collection system from Yellowstone River water for municipal use could be part of the recovery. The expansion should enable the city to go as long as 40 days without drawing river water. That’s that risk avoidance project FEMA could be part of, Tester said.

“What we’ve seen here adds some urgency to what Billings is trying to do,” Tester said. “What also adds urgency is this system is tapped out. Billings is growing, probably faster than it ever has in its life. And so, they’re going to need this extra capacity so they could be isolated, whether it’s flood or drought, and they’ve got enough water to supply the people of Magic City.”

Tester and Criswell departed for Livingston to review additional flood damage there. The senator said extensive damage from the floods in Yellowstone Park requires Congress to take a new approach to National Park Infrastructure, given the extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said something similar Thursday, suggesting that rebuilding roads in areas where extreme flooding might again obliterate infrastructure didn’t make sense. At the start of the week, as Yellowstone entrances shut down because of infrastructure failure and some tourists were evacuated, the damage contextualized as never seen before. By week’s end the discussion shifted to preparing for a future round of extreme weather.