Coming Together to Solve a Small Town’s Water Crisis

April 17, 2024

Like many small towns across America, Hysham, Montana sometimes needs to find creative solutions to public infrastructure needs. After safety concerns forced the town to shut down its water plant in May 2023, the Hysham community faced an extraordinary challenge. 

Thanks to efforts by town leadership and community partners, the town lifted its restriction against drinking water from the municipal supply in December.  

Hysham’s water crisis offers a glimpse into the ways small communities can solve costly infrastructure problems by tapping into regional support networks.

A perfect storm

Jim Atchison is the director of the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting economic growth and prosperity in Montana’s sparsely populated southeastern counties. SEMDC played an important role in helping Hysham raise the funds it needed to complete retrofit work at its water plant.

“A lot of small towns have infrastructure issues,” Atchison says. “There aren’t enough people to pay for upgrades.” With a high portion of residents living on fixed incomes, Hysham lacked the tax base to support early replacement of worn equipment at the water plant. Other budget priorities, like sewer maintenance and law enforcement, meant there weren’t enough dollars to go around.

With fewer than 300 residents and under 200 buildings in the entire town, Hysham faces a high  per-unit cost for any major repair to the water system. 

It’s a common scenario, Atchison says, and one that leads to underspending on infrastructure until a crisis arises, when costs jump.

Hysham’s water crisis, he says, was a perfect storm. “Their equipment was wearing out and the distribution system was leaking,” he says. “They were put on a boil-only order by the state. It caught most of the people by surprise.”

SEMDC lends a hand

Being far from other towns meant Hysham had to work hard to find interim solutions to the water supply problem for its residents. Atchison says he would regularly load cases of water into his car whenever he visited the town. “The restaurant almost closed,” he says. “Someone donated a tank so the restaurant could stay open. It was a great town effort.”

SEMDC and Great West Engineering stepped in to help the town develop a plan to address the filtration problems at the water plant, and to apply for grants to cover the anticipated $750,000 repair cost. With SEMDC’s help, the town secured grants that allowed it to replace worn out equipment at the water plant. 

Atchison says there’s still work to be done. The town’s water distribution system probably still needs over $1 million in repairs. 

Planning for the future

Additional grant funds are available through various government programs. To access them, the town will need to develop a growth policy. Atchison says such policies are mandatory for programs like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

SEMDC is working with Great West Engineering to support the town’s efforts to develop a comprehensive growth policy that will meet grant program requirements. 

Atchison says the purpose of such plans is to create projections of future infrastructure needs. In the past, such planning has taken place at the Treasure County level. But, Atchison says, county planning focuses on things like bridges and roads. The town’s plan will focus heavily on water and sewer matters. “The goal is to avoid emergencies,” he says.

The new planning effort, led by a new generation of town leadership, will help the regional economy thrive. “There’s a new spirit in the town,” Atchison says.

Pattern Energy’s Silverthorn Renewables is pleased to be among the financial contributors to the town of Hysham’s effort to develop its growth policy. The Silverthorn team celebrates the work of town leadership at SEMDC to restore the town’s drinking water, and looks forward to making meaningful contributions to the town’s future success.

Hysham, Montana