A series of sandbag dikes saves Rossiter Elementary School from flood waters in this IR file photo.

A series of sandbag dikes saves Rossiter Elementary School from flood waters in this IR file photo.

Eliza Wiley, IR file photo

The Lewis and Clark County Commission is ready to begin the process in which the owners of 1,643 properties in the Helena Valley will contribute to measures to mitigate flooding in that area.

County officials recently unveiled a tentative timetable during a routine meeting of the valley flood committee. The effort could result in a $100 annual assessment per property within the flood mitigation rural improvement district, which is generally located north of Helena between city limits and south of Lincoln Road. 

The committee consists of residents concerned with the potential their homes and properties could again be damaged by water from a trio of creeks. Committee attendance varies, and on this night only about a dozen people from the Valley attended.

The need for Valley residents to share in the cost of flood mitigation measures was initially discussed during a 2013 flood committee meeting. But those discussions failed to result in residents asking to tax themselves to protect their homes and properties.

Commission Chairwoman Susan Good Geise said at that time she wanted residents to petition the county for the creation of a rural improvement district, but told those at the meeting “we waited and waited. We just can’t wait anymore.”

Geise has previously told the flood committee that state and federal lawmakers had been unwilling to help fund flood mitigation projects if Valley residents weren’t contributing.

Last week she again noted that she’s had “zero traction” when talking with officials about flood mitigation work because Valley residents weren’t helping pay for a solution.

Other county residents have also not supported the county spending more on flood control measures for the same reason, Geise said.

The rural improvement district assessment could come after action by the commission that’s projected to begin May 30 with an announcement of the intent to create the district through a resolution of intention.

A 30-day protest period would then begin, where property owners would be able to oppose the district’s creation.

If more than half of the property owners are opposed, the commission would not be able to proceed with plans for the district, said Christal Ness, the county’s ombudsperson.

Based on this tentative schedule, a July 11 public hearing by the commission would be held to consider the protests and hear comments.

The assessment could be levied on the properties in the district on Aug. 1, in time for it to be added to property tax bills.

Four criteria determine which properties are slated for inclusion in the rural improvement district.

Properties that front a proposed improvement are included, as are those subject to flooding from a 100-year event, which have a 1 percent chance of happening each year, or a 500-year-event, which have a 0.2 percent chance of happening each year. 

Properties accessed by roads that can flood are included in the district even if those properties don’t front a proposed improvement and are not subject to flooding themselves.

And lastly, properties accessed by a road that will benefit from a proposed improvement are included in the district, although they don’t front a proposed improvement, are not subject to flooding and are not accessed by roads subject to flooding.

County officials say the assessment, which at $100 per property will generate $164,300 annually, will provide matching money for grants that can fund more significant flood mitigation projects.

And they wanted the flood committee to know that the work that is done is aimed at those floods that occur every 25 years or more frequently instead of the larger events.

“We’re just trying to manage this,” said Eric Griffin, the county’s public works director. “None of us can stop the water.”

Water from the creeks creates shallow flooding that covers yards and infiltrates basements.

A flood mitigation master plan created in 2013 detailing some $8.5 million of improvements in response to 2011 flooding in the Helena Valley caused by the drainages for Tenmile, Silver and Prickly Pear Creeks.

While flood damage in 2011 was estimated at $234,000, catastrophic flooding in 1981 produced some $3.2 million in residential and commercial damage, according to the flood mitigation master plan.

As of last June, the county had spent about $700,000 toward flood projects in the Helena Valley, county officials said at that time.

The county has not been able to afford more of the master plan’s recommendations.

When a member of the flood committee again asserted that the county isn’t doing anything to address flooding, Geise disputed the claim and defended spending by the county and the work of its staff.

While saying it’s frustrating to hear these claims, she added “it is insulting to them. They’re doing everything in their power.”

While there has been an ebb and flow of discussion on what measures should be taken to address flooding, such as constructing levees or dredging Tenmile Creek, those discussions continued Monday with calls for considering water storage areas above where the creeks enter the valley.

Part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to the county allowed the hiring of a consultant to provide hydrology and hydraulic data that can assess what proposed project will do when flood water arrives.

The study is preliminary until reviewed by county staff, county engineer Dan Karlin, P.E., said.

A representative of the company Respec, which has an office in Bozeman, launched a computerized map that displayed how water from Silver and Tenmile creeks flood the Valley in 25-year and 100-year events if no mitigation measures are taken.

Tiny squares and rectangles on the map indicating homes and other buildings were quickly engulfed in the spreading blue color that represented flood water.

The county was willing to provide $546,809 as its 25 percent match in a grant application seeking $1,640,427 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the installation of nine bridges as part of the flood mitigation work but failed to receive the grant because it didn’t have a hydrologic and hydraulic study, Karlin said. 

However, the study by Respec now provides that information, Karlin said and noted that the study will likely change what the county will propose instead of the bridges.

The county also has other FEMA funds that it has to have spent by May 1, 2018, Karlin said.

The $728,593 that is three-fourths FEMA funds and one-fourth county matching money is intended to pay for the lease of a pond at the Helena Trap Club that can be used to temporarily store flood water as well as pumping and piping to remove the water, Karlin said.

These funds also paid for the Respec study and will pay for roadside ditches to be cleaned and for a pipe to be installed beneath Sierra Road for flood water.

Water already overflows Sierra Road during floods, Karlin said, and explained the pipe will instead allow the water to pass beneath the roadway and won’t result in more water moving from the south side to the north side of the road.

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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