Some Orchard Homes residents willing to sell land to avoid future floods

Many homes in the Clark Fork River floodplain west of Missoula were flooded in last spring’s high water. (Missoula County Sheriff’s Office)

Before the next flood on the Clark Fork River, some in the Orchard Homes area would like Missoula County to buy their property, but they’re going to have to wait.

After the Clark Fork River overflowed its banks last spring, the county and the city of Missoula began trying to diminish the effects of future flooding.

One of the possibilities was for the county or the city to buy the affected properties and convert them to open space, thus restoring the floodplain. When asked, 13 homeowners indicated they’d be open to selling.

“In a perfect world, we would have the resources to do a global buyout of anyone who has been affected by flooding and who was willing to sell their property. But the reality is Missoula County doesn’t have the resources to do that,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

In search of more money, Adrienne Beck of Emergency Services looked into federal funding. But prospects didn’t improve.

Missoula was one of nine counties in Montana that qualified in November for a portion of $1.5 million as part of disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Seven other counties were awarded similar funding in August.

Missoula County’s portion of that goes to reimbursement of $189,000 spent on responding to the emergency last May.

Strohmaier said he’d hoped for some of the money FEMA dedicates to floodplain buyouts, but Montana’s share of that ends up being about $250,000 for the entire state. At Missoula’s land prices, the entire sum would barely buy one property.

Plus, FEMA money comes with a number of requirements. The property owner must have FEMA flood insurance, and much like assessing the cost of a car damaged in a collision, FEMA money can only be spent on the portion of the property that was damaged. Several of the Orchard Homes properties are elevated, so they sustained little or no damage even though the land was underwater.

Beck said she hasn’t given up on the search for funding, but nothing will happen before this spring.

“We will probably see other natural disasters happen in the state of Montana that will allocate funding, whether it’s flooding or fires. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to take advantage of that funding,” Beck said. “But the cost-benefit analysis will drive the counties ability to do a whole lot of buyouts.”

In December, the commission agreed to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repair the damaged levee that had been built to protect the Orchard Homes area. In a cost-share deal, the county will have to pay about $200,000 of the $1 million price tag.

“This, by no means, addresses all of the flooding out there. Some of the flooding was not the result of the river flooding but was actually groundwater welling up, which is a different issue. Then throw into that discussions of climate change and what might we foresee in the years and decades to come, which further complicates the projections,” Strohmaier said. “This is the sort of thing where we have to keep the conversation going year-round, because spring will be here before we know it.”