Yellowstone River Cofferdam

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Wilson Brothers of Cowley, Wyo., and Associated Underwater Services of Spokane, WA build a coffer dam as work continues Tuesday on new water intake in the Yellowstone River for the city of Laurel.

Sep 21, 2016

BY: Casey Page, Gazette Staff

A contractor crew and a specialized underwater construction subcontractor helped guide heavy equipment on Tuesday, sinking 3,200-pound sand bags into the Yellowstone River.

They worked three miles upstream from Laurel atop a man-made rock weir — a miniature peninsula that juts halfway across the river. The sandbags will form a cofferdam around the weir, allowing workers to install the long-awaited water intake.

The current unit, dubbed the 2003 intake, sits below the Highway 212 bridge south of town. It’s been plagued with issues since a flood swept through the area in 2011 and changed the riverbed topography.

Now in its ninth week, the $12 million intake project is underway. The work has been a long time coming for city officials. Laurel Public Works Director Kurt Markegard said that it defines critical infrastructure — a working intake brings millions of gallons of water to its residents, as well as the CHS refinery.

“This is probably one of the most important jobs we’ve done since 2003,” Markegard said.coffer-dam-2

Once the cofferdam is finished, pumps will pull out the remaining water, and the intake infrastructure will be installed. Markegard said surveys identified that upstream spot as one that’s more unlikely to be ruined by a flooding event.

Large blue piping will carry water back to the city’s treatment plant, which sits at shore near the old intake. Nick Wilson of Wilson Bros. Construction said that the pipes will sit an average of 14 feet underground. But it’s a gravity-fed system, so the pipes will gradually get deeper as they reach town.

About 25 trucks have arrived to pile up the pipes at the job site, Wilson said. About 75 more are expected.

A Wyoming firm, Wilson Bros. is the contractor. Montana-based Great West Engineering is handling the engineering work. Representatives from those companies meet each week with the city of Laurel and others involved in the project to discuss progress.

Meanwhile, temporary rock weirs were built just downstream from the Highway 212 bridge to keep the river level up above the old intake. Since the 2011 flood eroded the riverbed, the intake has suffered from ice jams in the winter and summer water levels that are too low.

Much of the construction cost will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which approved nearly $43 million in public assistance to Montana after a 2011 disaster declaration.

The funding requires a local match of 25 percent of the project cost. Finding a source for that 25 percent has kept the Laurel project at bay before, and it’s likely to persist in the future.coffer-dam

Laurel officials had a rocky road to find $3 million for 25 percent of the intake project. The funds didn’t make it to a vote in the 2011 or 2013 sessions of that Montana Legislature. In 2015, the infrastructure bill failed.

Gov. Steve Bullock directed his office to piece together various money streams for the project, but it was announced in October 2015 that the money was no longer available — gone toward other projects.

So Laurel took out a $1.7 million loan from the State Revolving Loan Fund Program and used $1.3 million in city reserves, according to City Councilman Tom Nelson. But it wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, as the town neared its borrowing capacity.

“They gave us the loan. We had to take it,” Nelson said. “We had no choice.”

Nelson expressed some rancor over the 2.5-percent-interest loan, because he felt the state was obligated to pay the 25-percent match of FEMA funds as Laurel recovers infrastructure from the flood.

He’s not the only city official who felt that way. At a July 12 city council meeting, Councilman Douglas Poehls said Bullock’s office “essentially betrayed the city,” according to meeting minutes. City Chief Administrative Officer Heidi Jensen said at that meeting that the governor hasn’t given an official written statement about the state’s responsibility to the funds.

Nelson traveled to Helena in August to talk to state officials. Accompanying him were Billings state Rep. Kelly McCarthy, Laurel Civil City Attorney Sam Painter and Laurel state Rep. Vince Ricci.

Ricci declined to comment on the meeting. The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

Nelson said Monday that Andy Huff, Bullock’s chief legal counsel, and Adam Schafer, Bullock’s policy director, heard him out on the manner. He said he requested an answer within two weeks but didn’t get one.

“The government’s still responsible for it,” he said. “The state still requested the emergency declaration from the president. That was given.”

The city’s hopes are pinned to the 2017 legislative session, when repayment for the state loan could end up tied to an infrastructure bill.

coffer-dam-3Ultimately, officials see it as a welcome sign that earth is moving west of town, near the end of Red Bridge Road.

Work is expected to be completed around April.

By MATT HUDSON mhudson@billingsgazette.com