We would like to thank Governor Greg Gianforte for taking the time to visit with local leaders to help find a solution for the Billings Bench Water Association irrigation canal.
Built in the early 1900’s, a portion of the canal in Billings is experiencing slope failure as the ground and sandstone boulders around it continuously shift.
The canal stretches from Laurel to Worden, serves around 1,400 customers, and is the primary irrigation source for about 17,000 acres of agricultural land.
“This slope failure project is much needed. You can see this slope is sliding down and if it fills the canal, they tell me, even if they shut off the water in Laurel immediately, it will take 24 hours to impact the water here in this part of the ditch, so it will just flow into downtown Billings that entire time,” said Gov. Gianforte during a Wednesday morning press conference.
Approximately 20 miles of the BBWA Canal is within Billings city limits.
A mild breach in 2021 flooded five blocks below the canal.
Now about 120 years old, if the canal were to breach, not only would its customers lose water supply, but it also puts the Billings North Park neighborhood and downtown area at risk for loss of life, property, and infrastructure.
“That would be a truly catastrophic event that would endanger many lives and hundreds of millions of dollars of property located downhill from the ditch,” said Billings Mayor Bill Cole. “The safety of Billings residents and their property is my top priority, as well as city council, and all members of city staff. That’s why it’s important for the BBWA, in partnership with the city, county, and state, look for ways this historic and valuable ditch can continue to safely transport water through the middle of our community for another hundred years.”
During this legislative session, Gov. Gianforte introduced House Bill 269, a disaster mitigation fund that includes $100 million in the budget to reduce disaster risk across the state.
Sponsored by Rep. Larry Brewster of House District 44 in Billings, the bill passed the house committee on first reading, passed the house on the second reading, but was tabled by the house appropriations committee in February.
“It’s now essential that the bill be brought to the floor and passed as soon as possible,” said Mayor Cole. “The City remains committed to help the BBWA, Yellowstone County, and the governor to get this resolved. I will also be calling my elected leaders and have a special recommendation to anyone who lives, especially in this North Park area, to get on the phone and get on their emails and reach out to the legislators just as soon as possible.”
Funding for HB 269 would come from state surplus funds. According to Gov. Gianforte, for every dollar the state invests in disaster mitigation, federal authorities would match it with an additional $9.
The BBWA and City of Billings have been closely monitoring the slope with equipment that offers real time updates. The City has also contributed funding and resources over the past several years to prevent a ditch failure.
At this time, it's uncertain when the canal will fail, but the Director of Emergency Management for the City of Billings and Yellowstone County KC Williams says it's imminent.
Water usually begins flowing through the canal once spring temperatures warm up.
The BBWA canal also failed in 1937 and caused a historic flooding event. According to Williams, water was up to 6-feet deep in downtown Billings.
To follow HB 269, click here.