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Montana is prepping to remove flood debris from state waterways. Here's what residents should know

A downed bridge and trees on June 14, 2022
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
A downed bridge and trees on June 14, 2022

Emergency managers say they’re on track to complete some debris cleanup at state-managed river sites in southcentral Montana by the first anniversary of last June’s flood.

Montana Disaster and Emergency Services representatives gave a status update on cleanup efforts Wednesday night.

Allison Taylor with DES says contractors will target identified areas in Carbon, Park, Stillwater and Yellowstone Counties for removal of vegetative and construction and demolition debris.

“Like chunks of concrete, asphalt, maybe a random piece of metal that was washed into the river,” she said. “So, all those things that you wouldn't naturally find in a river plus the trees that were deposited in the river from the flood.”

Sites Montana Disaster and Emergency Services have targeted for debris cleanup
Sites Montana Disaster and Emergency Services have targeted for debris cleanup. Locations: Absarokee, Columbus, Cliff Swallow, Emigrant, North Emigrant, South Emigrant, Gardiner, Laurel, NYE rd. bridge, near NYE, Roscoe, Rockvale, Roberts, Red Lodge, South Columbus, near Stillwater Mine

Taylor said the state has been working with FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and local communities to obtain necessary approvals since the flood last June.

“And since this is such a large project, that does take a lot of work and it takes a lot of time, but we’re working diligently and we’re going as fast as we can," she said. "And as of right now, we’re currently receiving proposals from debris removal companies and debris monitoring companies."

The removal of rocks and sediment is a different FEMA process. Emergency managers say they’re working toward collecting required river data from before and after the flood in order to receive funding for that type of removal.

Taylor says the state hopes to complete vegetative and construction and demolition debris by April, with a hard deadline of June 16.

Regulations require nearby land owners to be notified of planned work, but the current debris cleanup under discussion is not happening on private property or waterways.

Debris Meeting: Question and answers with Montana DES

This transcription has been edited for time and clarity. In some places, answers from multiple representatives have been combined into one for the sake of understandability. 

 Question: If we're familiar with an area where there's a lot of vegetative debris that's not on this list, is there a mechanism to add a site? The list that came out today is substantially shorter than the list that had been circulating. Is there a reason why?

Answer: To answer your first question is yes, there is a mechanism to add sites, but again, we have to work with FEMA and they have the final say on eligibility. So, the sites to be added, they need to be FEMA eligible, and we need to make sure we have that supporting documentation to show that it’s FEMA eligible and that also that we have a location of the site and pictures, but they can be added. So, that list is not completely set in stone. And, as far as the shrinking of the initial list, FEMA has sent multiple site inspectors out to look at these sites many times over the course of months.

And, after looking at that initial report that was produced by FEMA and Army Corps and then going down and looking at those sites again, some of those sites, the debris is no longer there, which makes sense. It's a waterway. There's constantly a current moving. Some of that debris might have been pushed further downstream and also, some of the sites that were originally provided on the list, when FEMA looked at it again, they couldn't determine if it would necessarily fit those FEMA eligibility criteria.

But there's always a way for us to advocate for additional sites being added if there is a need.

We have a program delivery manager assigned to us for this project, and once our contractors are on the ground working and additional sites are identified, we have a process in place to work with our program delivery manager and the FEMA leadership to ask to get those sites reviewed for eligibility and to add them to the project.

Q: Do you need any local staff assistance?

A: We may during the coordination phase especially because I know some of the GPS coordinates we have, some of them may be approximate just because they were taken from the closest point.

The site inspector could get to that site, but maybe they weren't right on top of that site. So, maybe there may be sites that the contractors have a little bit trouble locating once they get out there. So, it may be helpful if needed to have at least a local contact if there is any confusion about the exact location of the debris to help point them in the right direction.

We definitely will not say no to help.

Q: Will sandbags be available as high water starts this spring?

A: That's something that you would work with your local emergency managers and your floodplain managers because we are concerned about the next water event and spring runoff.

So, please work with your local officials on that one. What we're really trying to focus this public meeting is for the removal of the debris from last year's flooding event, knowing that we do have spring runoff and ice jamming and several other concerns over the next three months.

Q: Are rock bars and/or large deposits of rock being considered debris? If so, how do we add sites? The general consensus in our county is that these rock bars are a major hazard.

A: They are considered debris, but I have to add this caveat: Since we're working within the confines of the public assistance grant program with FEMA, they have special criteria that pertain to rock and sediment deposits.

They refer to those as dredging projects and there are specific criteria we have to meet for eligibility, which we are currently working on meeting those. And I guess just go into just high level detail with that sort of project, FEMA requires us to have both pre-disaster elevation and post-disaster elevations of the channel, and we are working diligently to get that data.

Once we have that data, we will be able to develop a removal project, but we are working on that, I promise. That is not something that has been thrown to the wayside. It’s actively being worked on. It's not going be handled in this first push. This first push is just going be the vegetative and the construction and demolition debris removal.

Q: Will contractors have freedom to pick up additional debris along the way, even if they are not on the list, but would've been eligible?

A: That depends. We would need to get approval from FEMA first. Because we are doing this under a FEMA grant. We are getting funding from the federal government. We would need to coordinate with FEMA for those additional sites before we just pick them up. We need to ask the question and if it came down to it, to where that debris site was not FEMA eligible, but it was a hazard, then that would be a further conversation with state government, whether or not we would like to pick up that debris even though it wouldn't be reimbursable by FEMA. But that's one of those things, as those sites come up, we'll let FEMA know and say, ‘Hey, we have a new site we'd like to add. Can you please look at this and see if it fits the criteria?’

And since it's their program, they'll make that call. Then if it is not eligible for whatever reason, then that's a bridge we can cross when we get there. Our goal is right now to stick to the sites that are approved and the ones that are not approved that could potentially be approved, if you are one of the selected contractors, you would either let DES know or one of the debris monitors that are going be on site in the field with you know, ‘Hey, there's this debris here. I think it needs to be picked up.’ And then once we get that information, we'll be able to run it through the chain and get it verified by FEMA, and then we can advise you if it's eligible to be picked up.

Because right now the way the contract reads, if it's not something that's approved by disaster and emergency services and if it's not something that's eligible by FEMA, we're not, basically, paying for the removal of that at this time.

Again, it goes back to eligibility. We have to show that it poses a threat. And again, it has to fit those three specific criteria. It has to be a threat to life, safety, health or public infrastructure.

It has to threaten one of those. So, if there's a pile of debris within a waterway, and let's say it's away from public infrastructure, and it's in the middle of someone's land and it's away from their house, yeah that debris is there, but FEMA may not necessarily view that as eligible because it doesn't fit that specific criteria.

So, if you do have sites that aren't on this list and you think other sites should be added, please let us know and we can ask those questions and present those to FEMA to get those added.

If you can provide that justification like, ‘Hey, this is a 500-pound tree. If this moves in a high water event at a high speed and hits this bridge, it's gonna cause this damage.’ It's really in how you provide that justification and tell that story. So, I hate the answer ‘It depends,’ but it depends.

I will say several of the sites that were on the original list are now combined in one site on FEMA's list. Multiple of the original sites were put together because they were close enough in GPS coordinates that FEMA was able to be like, okay, this could be one damage inventory item. One damage site might be two of the original sites combined.

Q: With contract work beginning, how will any of us know who's working on the sites legitimately or just going after it independently without the permit?

A: We will have contractors assigned to the sites, and we will not have work start until we get any permits.

So, if there is someone who wants to go out there and start removing debris on their own again, that's not something we at state have control over, and we definitely advise that person from not doing that because that could put you at risk with litigation and fines from permitting agencies, especially if you're going out there and doing work in the waterway without a permit.

And we definitely do not want you to have any sort of legal risks like that. But everything that's going through Montana DES, we will let those contractors know and be like, ‘Hey, we'd like to work with you, and these are the sites we'd like you to work on.’ And you'd have those specific sites assigned and that would be communicated with all the other contractors.

They'll know, ‘OK, I'm only allowed to work on these sites at these coordinates.’ And we'll make sure all the permanent documentation is in line for those sites before we start.

We definitely want to make sure that this is transparent as possible. We can definitely empathize with how frustrating it is, especially when you live next to these waterways and you see that huge pile of trees and you were just like, ‘When is that gonna move? Why isn't that being picked up?’

And we just wanna make sure you guys know what is happening behind the curtain. Like I said, this is actively being worked on. It's been actively being worked on since the flood happened, and it's a long process. There's a lot of players, but we're almost to the end. We see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we're getting there, and we're fully confident that we can get those trees out of the water before we really get into the high-water season.

Again, we have to keep in mind that what we're removing is FEMA-eligible because FEMA is not paying for 100 percent of this debris removal. They're only paying for a portion of it. So, there's still a portion where the state of Montana is going to be responsible for that cost.

So, we also have to really be mindful that we're prioritizing sites as best as possible and using our state taxpayers’ funds as wisely as possible to where we'll get the most benefit for our dollar.

And, so, at least with the FEMA public assistance program right now for debris, they could reimburse us 75 percent and we would be responsible for 25 percent of the cost. If we remove something that's not FEMA eligible, then 100 percent of that cost does go to state of Montana. It's a balancing act.

And, again for the dredging, I promise we are working on that as quickly as possible. It's just a matter of gathering that data for the pre- and post-event elevations of the stream beds.

Even if we're removing sediment and if a local floodplain manager said that, ‘Hey, you could go ahead and proceed with the work and get your permitting and everything to us after the fact,’ from an emergency standpoint, FEMA will not consider it an eligible project until a hydraulic and hydrologic analysis is done to prove - and what they're looking at is they wanna look at the condition of the channel and the elevation of the stream bed before the disaster and then now they want a study done to show you the base elevation of that stream bed after the disaster to show that there's four feet of sedimentation and prove that that's there.

And it has to be proven with an engineer sign, stamped and delivered before FEMA will consider it an ineligible project and allow us to move forward with dreding.

FEMA will only fund costs that are directly related to that declared disaster. In some instances — I'm not talking about any streams in Montana when I say this -- but sometimes you have a channel where it has not been maintained, that sediment or that rock buildup is just there from years of it not being dredged and cleaned out and maintained.

So that's why FEMA requires the pre- and post-disaster engineering studies to show that yes, we can say without a doubt that this amount of rock or this amount of sediment was deposited because of the declared event.

And that is the biggest way FEMA determines eligibility — is if they cannot relate it back to that event that the grant is tied to, then they can't fund it.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.