News & Features

A Runaway Drain

Bigfork's mysterious storm water system

Storm water in Bigfork drains directly into Flathead Lake, untreated, picking up goodies like oil and assorted chemicals along the way. Many in Bigfork believe this is certainly a problem, but before anything can be done, sufficient money must be raised to fund an engineering report.

In the meantime, amateur engineers are investigating the town’s mysterious pipe pathways by dropping tennis balls into them.

Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman and others are searching for enough money to pay for a report that can help explain Bigfork’s bizarre pipe system and lay out plans for a new one. Then they’ll need to find more money to rebuild it.

A $15,000 grant from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helps, as does support from the offices of U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Brenneman said.

“We’re optimistic,” he said.

Still, he doesn’t expect any work to begin before next summer, at least.

Brenneman is working with various organizations, like Bigfork Water and Sewer, and residents to figure out the confusing array of pipes. Aside from the large pipe that drains into Bigfork Bay next to a public dock, other pipes don’t appear to go anywhere, especially in the “Old Town.” Some are connected, some aren’t and the rest nobody knows about. Brenneman and Flathead County Road Superintendent Guy Foy haven’t figured out who installed many of the pipes, not to mention when or why.

One strategy to determine the pipes’ paths was to drop tennis balls into drains while people watched to see where they came out.

“They never came out,” Brenneman said.

The tennis ball dropper, Edd Blackler, is a longtime Bigfork resident and chairman of the Bigfork Vision Committee. He said he used the tennis ball method in the 1960s when he worked at Rebecca Hall, which today is the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. Pipes were clogged and after trying “snakes” – plumbing tools – Blackler turned to the tennis balls with some success.

Blackler said the drain system is “most definitely something that needs to be addressed,” especially considering the rapid rate of development.

“The available building footprint for the town is getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “That is a matter of serious concern.”

Not all storm water goes into the lake. One drain empties into a bush on private property and another into Swan River by the busy Electric Avenue. Remodeling the high school parking lot exacerbated problems for the bush drain, Brenneman said, because two drain holes were paved over on Grand Drive. Now, instead of dropping into the drain and running out into Bigfork Bay, runoff water shoots across Grand Drive, into a drain hole, through a pipe and into the bush. In the winter when the ground freezes, water can’t soak in and it freezes on the surface of private properties, Brenneman said.

The project initially focused on the Bigfork Bay drain, but as Brenneman, Foy and others looked deeper into the pipe system it was apparent that they faced a larger problem.

“The rabbit hole expanded,” Brenneman said. “The whole thing expanded from a little storm drain to a ‘let’s do the right thing for the whole community.’”

Brenneman estimates the engineering report alone will cost $30,000 to $40,000. It’s too early to say how much a construction project would cost. Part of the project may include some sort of treatment facility, whether it be a plant or a French drain that utilizes gravel as a filtering agent. Hopefully, Brenneman said, a Bigfork drainage renovation could lead the way for similar projects in Somers and Lakeside, which most likely have similar situations.

The problems won’t end even if enough money is found for both the engineering report and construction to fix the system. Then, because Bigfork isn’t incorporated, the question remains: Who will take care of it? Currently, nobody maintains storm water drainage in the town, said Julie Spencer of Bigfork Water and Sewer.

“It’s tough to find anyone who wants to take care of it,” she said.

The system has had intermittent caretakers in the past, Spencer said, but essentially it has been left to nature. The system was probably built in the 1960s, she said, though nobody has any maps or information – not her agency nor the county. Spencer’s agency has nothing to do with the drain system and technically, she said, responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the county, or more specifically the road department.

“You have an old town,” she said. “And it’s not even really a town – if it was incorporated, it would be the city’s responsibility.”

Flathead’s water quality presents enough concerns, Brenneman said, with “all those boats buzzing around.” Though water quality is still excellent in the lake, it won’t stay that way without some changes.

“After a while the cumulative effects start to pile up,” he said.

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