Water levels along the Yellowstone River at Billings appear to have peaked late Wednesday morning and may now be flattening out.
Overnight, the river rose to 16 feet, a full foot higher than its record crest of 15 feet in 1997 and a foot and a half higher than what was initially forecast for the city earlier this week.
By 9 a.m. on Wednesday the Yellowstone had climbed to 16.4 feet and then appeared to jump to 17.52 feet at 11 .a.m., according to data from the National Weather Service. By 12:45 p.m. levels had dropped to 16.3 feet.
For much of Wednesday afternoon, the river level hovered between 16.4 and 16.7 feet.
The Yellowstone is considered to be in major flood stage when it reaches 15.5 feet. As the river kept climbing on Tuesday it overwhelmed the Billings City water treatment plant, forcing crews to shut it down shortly before midnight. The river needs to be at 15 feet or below for the plant to operate effectively.
“The City of Billings is asking residents to conserve water, specifically refrain from watering grass and using irrigation systems supplied by the city water plant,” said Victoria Hill, the city’s public information officer. “The water system has between a day to a day-and-a-half of water supply for Billings.”
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The amount of silt and debris in the water is mainly what pushed the city to shut down the plant. Crews spent Wednesday morning pumping dirty water out of the plant’s sedimentation basin.
By Wednesday afternoon, the water plant was operating again but at a “substantially low capacity” to supply water into the city’s reservoirs.
“It is our belief, if we continue to have very low water demand across the city, we can continue operating our plant at this capacity,” Hill said. “This means we continue to ask everyone to refrain from watering grass and using irrigation systems hooked up to the city water system.”
Once the river drops below the 15-foot mark, the city can start the process of getting the water treatment plant back up to full operation. The National Weather Service is forecasting the river to drop below 15 feet sometime Thursday morning.
Leading up to Tuesday night, the water plant filled its network of water reservoirs and towers across the city to ensure it had something in reserve.
Billings Public Works officials warned city leaders Monday night that if the river rose to 15 feet it would put the water and wastewater treatment plants in jeopardy. By Tuesday evening crews had placed sandbags and taken measures to protect equipment there as the river hit 15 feet.
Early Wednesday morning the river had risen to 16 feet and city crews were scrambling with heavy equipment to keep flood waters out of the treatment plant and to protect the plant’s levee.
To ensure the city’s small reserve lasts until the plant can start processing water at full capacity again, city officials are pleading with residents to conserve their water use, said city administrator Chris Kukulski.
“Please help us,” he said.
City officials stressed that the water being processed by the city is clean.
“All the water we’re producing is safe to drink,” said Debi Meling, Public Works director for the city.
Currently, the wastewater treatment plant continues to operate normally, they said. The city’s storm water drainage system, which is gravity-based, is at capacity with the river levels pushing water into the storm drain outlets.
These record amounts of water carried by the Yellowstone and the Clarks Fork have spread through much of the Yellowstone valley over the last 24 hours.
Ranches and farmsteads south of Billings stretching to Edgar have been inundated. Yellowstone County officials closed half a dozen roads and are monitoring four bridges.
“It doesn’t appear there will be a substantial amount of damage,” said Tim Miller, county supervisor for roads and bridges. “I think we’re gonna come through this OK.”
Initially the county was worried about Duck Creek Road; a berm built after the last flooding event sits between the roadway and the river and protects it from completely inundating.
Miller said they were initially worried the berm would wash away; instead the river water flowed over it damaging only the top.
The county has two bridges that cross the Yellowstone, which have held steady, and two that cross the Clarks Fork. Those two bridges appeared to more at risk but seem to be holding fine, Miller.
But they won’t know for sure until water levels drop.
The area south of Billings at River Road and Duck Creek was nearly all under water, flooding a number of farms and ranches. Water from the Clarks Fork had flooded land and ranch houses around Byam Road at the Yellowstone/Carbon County line as well as the Pryor Edgar Road near Edgar.
Cities in eastern Montana along the Yellowstone River’s path are forecast to see higher levels of water but so far not enough to push them into a major flood stage, according to the weather service.
The Yellowstone at Forsyth is predicted to crest at 12.7 feet on Friday morning; flood stage there is 14 feet.
Miles City could see some flooding. The river is expected to crest there at 14.8 feet on Friday afternoon; minor flood stage at Miles City is 14 feet.
Further down the line, the Yellowstone at Glendive is forecast to crest sometime Saturday morning, reaching 53.2 feet. The minor flood stage there is 53.5 feet.
In Sidney, the river is forecast to crest at 17.8 feet on Saturday afternoon. Minor flood stage there is 19 feet.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism