Late last month Don Kaiser dug a small hole in his backyard lawn, just beyond the door of his porch.
The hole, which is maybe 4 inches across and a foot deep, filled immediately with water, the top of the water sitting just below the grass line.
Troubling as that was for Kaiser, it was possibly the least surprising thing to happen on his property this month.
Over the last year, Kaiser's home has buckled and bent in dramatic fashion. The walls have shifted and cracked, two-by-fours on the ground floor have pushed through the drywall and a crevice appeared in his foundation wall so wide that he can fit his hand into it.
This month his shower stall split in half and stone tiles on his dining room floor have cracked or popped out of place. The sidewalk in front of his house has separated and is pushing into the asphalt on the road, which has caused the blacktop to bow at the curb.
Earlier this week, Montana-Dakota Utilities shut off his gas because the lines into his house were bowing so much they threatened to break.
By all appearances, Kaiser's house is sliding toward the street.
"I don't know what to do," he said. "Fairly soon I won't be in my home."
The trouble started last summer.
Kaiser and a couple of his neighbors discovered marshy turf and standing water in their backyards. The homes along Vuecrest Drive, where Kaiser and his wife Lupe live, butt up against the bottom of a hillside that slopes up to the irrigation canal owned and operated by the Billings Bench Water Association.
The canal has run from Laurel to Shepherd, skirting the bottom of the Rims as it runs through north Billings, since 1903. The neighborhood on Vuecrest is new by comparison; the homes on the canal side of the street were built in the last 15 years.
The Kaisers built their home on what was then an empty lot owned by Yellowstone County and they moved in in 2006. Their neighbor, Doug Eaton built and moved in around the same time. He now rents the home.
When they arrived and for years after, Vuecrest was an idyllic little corner of Billings.
Almost immediately upon moving in, Kaiser went to work developing and improving his backyard, which slopes up toward the canal. He built a patio and outdoor kitchen, constructed a railroad-tie retaining wall to level off the slope at the back of the yard, where he planted fruit trees, hops, grapevines and installed bee colonies to help pollinate it all.
In 15 years of digging and working in his backyard he'd never come across any groundwater.
"It was never like this," he said.
And then last summer he noticed marshy patches of ground at the back of his and Eaton's yard. When fall came, the water went away and didn't come back until May, when it was almost pouring out of the hillside.
Digging around, Kaiser found an old, white PVC pipe buried in the hillside spilling copious amounts of water. Not sure what to do, he bought yards of black irrigation pipe, connected it to the PVC and ran it to the gutter in front of his house.
Eaton next door, discovered similar saturation in his backyard, but no pipe. He dug a hole and placed a pump inside to keep the water out, attaching a garden hose to it, which runs the water to the gutter in front of his house.
Together, the two are spilling out 20,000 gallons of water a day.
Both have spoken to the Billings Bench Water Association; they even attended the BBWA's board of directors meeting last month. Representatives of the association have visited the properties and, from the top of the hill, dug down along the side of the ditch to see what they could discover.
BBWA workers ended up digging a hole 10-and-a-half-feet deep and found no groundwater, no saturation, said Gary Davis, president of the BBWA board of directors.
Roughly 50 feet below the canal sit the homes on Vuecrest. Given that the hole dug by the BBWA was dry 10 feet down, Davis said the water Kaiser and Eaton are finding is likely ditch seep coming from the very bottom of the canal.
"We're trying to figure it out," Davis said. "We think that it's a seep from the canal prior to the construction of the homes."
Kaiser and Eaton want to know why the water is showing up now.
Canals the size of the BBWA's use a system of drains installed near their base that are designed to moderate the seepage from the ditch and keep the ground around the canal dry. They're known as toe drains.
Along with the toe drains, ditches will often have a series of collection and diversion pipelines to help reduce the impact of the seepage and direct its flow.
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Eaton and Kaiser wonder if the old PVC pipe they found was part of some old drain that perhaps cracked or busted, which might explain why so much water was dumping into their backyards.
Davis said the old pipe wasn't part of any BBWA drainage system. He said it's likely that it was part of a collection and diversion pipeline installed by a previous landowner that cracked and ruptured last winter.
The BBWA has checked their archives and have found no record of pipes or drains installed by the BBWA behind Eaton and Kaiser's property, Davis said.
Complicating the process is the fact that no government agency seems to regulate irrigation canals. The city of Billings has no authority because this section of the canal existed before the city did.
Yellowstone County has no jurisdiction; it only gets involved when BBWA property intersects with county right-of-way, said county public works director Tim Miller.
At the state level, the Dept. of Natural Resources regulates the water rights used by the BBWA but once the water enters the canal, the DNRC's jurisdiction ends.
If there are issues with the canal or water leaking from the canal, "that's the responsibility of the ditch owner," a DNRC spokesman said.
At the federal level, the Bureau of Reclamation, a part of the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over major public works like the Eerie Canal. Local irrigation companies don't show up on their radar.
It's intensely frustrating for the homeowners on Vuecrest; they feel like they have no one in authority to turn to for assistance. And Kaiser said even if they did have an agency they could go to or had someone to take up their fight, it's too late.
"By the time it gets (resolved) we won't have a home," he said.
But that doesn't mean they haven't tried.
On Tuesday, Billings Mayor Bill Cole, along with council members Mike Yakowich and Penny Ronning, visited the area and received a tour of the hillside and the Kaiser home. Kaiser and other homeowners had spoken to the council the night before at its work session.
Cole noted that it's hard to get a sense of the scope of the problem until people actually see the Kaiser's home and the hill behind three lots there.
"I have a lot of sympathy for the landowners," Cole said. "I hope that the ditch company and the homeowners can find a solution."
With the sidewalk moving and the asphalt on the street buckling, Cole said the city will need to be a part of the process going forward simply to ensure that city property is being protected.
At this point Don and Lupe Kaiser feel like they are out of options. Soon they'll have to abandon their home, which still has a sizable mortgage, and they don't know where they'll go.
"I can't sell it," Kaiser said. "And we can't start over. I can't afford to pay my mortgage and live somewhere else."
He sometimes struggles to contain his anger. From his point of view, it appears the BBWA has failed to maintain its systems of drains and seepage at the bottom of the canal and that negligence has resulted in the destruction of his home.
When representatives from the BBWA came to Eaton's and Kaiser's property earlier this month, they turned the issue back on the homeowners.
"They wanted to know what we were going to do to alleviate the problem," Eaton said.
Davis, president of the board of directors, said as difficult as the situation is, it's ultimately the responsibility of the property owner to solve the problem. The old PVC pipe leaking the water was not installed by the BBWA and it predates all the homes on the hillside, he said.
"We sympathize with the homeowners," Davis said. But he added, "it's a homeowner's responsibility to protect your own."
Additionally, Montana statute is relatively explicit about the liability of those who operate irrigation canals and ditches.
"An irrigation district or private person or entity owning or operating irrigation ditches is not liable for ... personal injury or property damage occurring on another's land and caused by water seepage that existed or began before the injured person first arrived on or obtained an interest in the land or before the damaged property was first placed on the land, if the seepage does not carry toxic chemicals onto the land," the statute reads.
Davis emphasized that the BBWA is working to understand the issue.
"We're not turning our backs on them," he said. But, he re-emphasized, "ditches do seep."