Water levels in the Yellowstone River dropped to an historic low last week and after a summer of record heat and water-use restrictions, it’s caught the attention of Billings officials.
The Yellowstone is Billings’ one source of drinking water, and the city maintains two intake sites to accommodate for fluctuations in the river’s flow. Should water levels drop below where the main intake sits, the city can switch to its backup intake.
During the last week of December the Yellowstone at one point dropped to a flow of 800 cubic feet per second, a record low, said city administrator Chris Kukulski.
“From what we can see and information we’ve gathered, it appears that there may be an ice jam somewhere around Livingston,” Kukulski wrote in an update last week.
Typically the river runs closer to 2,000 cubic feet per second this time of year, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Of concern for the city is water levels dropping low enough that it simply couldn’t collect water. The city’s auxiliary intake, which is smaller, sits low on the river bed and has limited ability to process out sediment, leaving it prone to clogging.
Should Billings lose access to water from the Yellowstone, the city will quickly run dry — it has between eight and 12 hours of reserve water sitting in its 18 small storage reservoirs across Billings. It helps that it’s winter; water demand across Billings drops to its lowest level during the cold months.
Still, December’s low water levels come after a summer that saw some of the hottest temperatures and lowest river levels in recent memory. For much of the summer, Billings was running its water treatment plant nearly at capacity 24 hours a day.
The demand forced Public Works employees to place cooling fans on the treatment plant’s pumping and processing equipment to keep them from overheating. By August, the city had put water restrictions in place for the first time since the 1970s.
For Bill Cole, Billings’ mayor, the water troubles from last summer and the concerningly low levels of the Yellowstone this winter pointedly illustrate the city’s need for a backup water supply.
“This situation confirms that the City Council made the right decision several years ago to build a West End reservoir and water treatment facility, even though it meant raising water rates for all of us,” Cole said.
Construction on the massive new reservoir, roughly a $72 million project, began in 2020. The city currently is working on the reservoir’s intake and treatment facility in the old gravel pit and vacant field that sits on either side of Hesper Road between 48th Street West and Shiloh Road.
The project will take at least two more years to complete with the goal to create a vast backup water supply for Billings for cases of emergency or drought.
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