Baker Lake

Signs mark the edge of Baker Lake in Iron Horse Park on August 30.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Work began earlier this month to dredge sediment from Baker Lake, which is full of debris from a tornado that touched down in southeastern Montana last year.

Fallon County officials learned on Friday that $2.1 million in federal disaster aid had been secured for the project, which is slated for a June completion. Recovery work began 16 months ago, just after the storm.

The EF-3 tornado hit the town of Baker in June 2016, tearing up homes along the southeast end of the lake before the storm dissipated. Much of the debris, estimated in the hundreds of tons, deposited into the lake.

In a cleanup effort led by Fallon County, the lake was drained this summer so crews could dig it all up. The first order of business in the current phase is for excavators and trucks to build an access road into the dried lake bed.

“They're building their haul road in on the west side of the lake," said Jason Riddal, development adviser for Fallon County. "So they dropped in on the southeast corner and cut across and they're working up the west bank.”

While county officials have been working with state and federal officials for more than a year, a public announcement that $2.1 million was secured from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came Tuesday.

The announcement came from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's office.

“When disasters strike, we need to help folks on the ground pick up the pieces,” Tester said in a press release. “This funding will provide the people of Baker with resources to aid in a hard-fought recovery, allowing the community to restore some of what was lost.”

The $2.1 million represents FEMA's share of the $2.8 million in public funding Fallon County expects for the project. As part of a disaster declaration agreement, the state of Montana is expected to pick up the remaining $700,000.

That will pay for the removal of 120,000 cubic yards of sediment from the bottom of the lake area. Rittal said it will be piled up, and the trash will be separated out to be dumped into a landfill. The sediment will go into a separate disposal site near the landfill, he said.

FEMA funds have already contributed to the lake draining, the initial cleanup response and other smaller project items, Rittal said.

More than $3.2 million in public assistance has been approved by FEMA since the tornado, according to the agency. That included assistance for initial cleanup efforts, repairs and de-watering Baker Lake.

There is a second phase to the project. About $6.4 million in local funds will go toward removing another 400,000 cubic yards of debris in the county's effort to improve the lake for recreation uses.

The lake bed could be lowered by as much as 20 feet in some spots, Fallon County Disaster and Emergency Services Director Chuck Lee said in September.

About 20,000 cubic yards of sediment was removed just last week in the road-building effort, Rittal said. Once a solid entrance is built, excavation will be ongoing.

"It's going to be a busy winter," he said.

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.