As Kalispell Expands, its Pace Depends on Wastewater Treatment Capacity

By Beacon Staff

It’s something every Kalispell resident uses every day, yet rarely thinks about. It’s a part of the city arguably more important than roads, trash collection and elected officials. And it’s kind of stinky.

It’s the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) and it’s undergoing a massive expansion over the next year. Kalispell City Council approved an operating budget of almost $65 million for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, $20 million of which is dedicated to expansion of the plant. If that sounds like a lot, it is.

But consider that none of the growth Kalispell is currently experiencing would be possible without the ability of the city to clean and return to the watershed the imminent increase in water use by new residents. And as with every other corollary of growth, nothing is simple. The plant’s expansion comes at a time of uncertainty over increasingly stringent water quality standards coming down from the state Department of Environmental Quality – part of a government push to maintain and improve the water quality in Flathead Lake and across Montana.

The plant is currently capable of processing 3.1 million gallons of wastewater per day. About four years ago, the plant reached 80 percent of that capacity and plans commenced to expand. By June of 2009, the current expansion should be complete and the plant will be able to process roughly 5.4 million gallons per day. Plans exist to expand capacity to 7.2 million gallons per day in the future, according to Joni Emrick, water resource manager for the plant.

“It’s hard to assess, so many years ahead, where we’re going to be,” she said. Kalispell’s wastewater treatment plant is the most advanced biological nutrient removal facility of its kind, particularly in a cold climate. It uses no chemicals, gives off relatively little odor, and serves one of the most ecologically sensitive river systems in North America. What solid waste the plant doesn’t use for fuel becomes compost. Municipal waste officials from around the world have visited the plant to learn how it does what it does.

But Emrick, a microbiologist, and other officials in the public works department fear that because the plant has done so well at keeping the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus released into Ashley Creek to levels well beneath the allotment on its current permit, DEQ’s permit for the expanded facility might set even tighter restrictions that could be impossible to meet. “How far do we have to go when we’ve done so much?” Emrick asked.

The 2000 federal court decision, Friends of the Wild Swan v. U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), ruled that Montana was not doing enough to reduce the levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in rivers and lakes. Now, the state DEQ is working on establishing standards for how much of those nutrients – the Total Maximum Daily Load – can be released into waterways across the state. The agency hopes to complete the project by 2012.

Such nutrients don’t just come from sewage treatment plants; they exist in the ash from wildfires, agricultural runoff and the fertilizer used on the lawns of suburban homes. Since it’s impossible for the state to control how much ash a wildfire deposits into the Flathead river system, it’s likely the DEQ will crack down hard on what it can control: facilities like wastewater treatment plants.

Reducing the WWTP’s nutrient discharge while drastically expanding the amount of water it treats could prove extremely expensive and difficult. James Hansz, Kalispell director of public works and city engineer, said cities across Montana face the same challenge regarding wastewater treatment, and Kalispell’s actually in better shape than most because its plant is already so advanced.

“Long before any of this became an issue, Kalispell stepped up to the plate,” Hansz said. “I think we’re at just about the limit of technology for what we’ve got out here.”

Hansz is heartened by the recent permit issued to the Whitefish WWTP, which he said was not restrictive beyond the plant’s capabilities. He expects similarly reasonable guidelines for the Kalispell plant when it receives its new permit, sometime in the fall or early 2008.

“We just hope that having adopted these standards years ago, the changes that we will have to deal with will not be as bad as they could be,” Hansz said.

Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, praised the public works department for being so proactive in the area of water treatment. But she is concerned that so much residential development has already been approved by city council, that the expanded capacity of the plant will have been reached by the time currently approved residential development has occurred.

“You could have really good planning going for your sewage treatment plant, but you can’t do that in isolation,” Flowers said. The WWTP expansion is just one of the many improvements in services necessary to accommodate growth that the city council must consider. Others include increasing the police and fire department, setting aside parkland, and most importantly, she said, addressing transportation.

“They bring in more property without adequate capacity,” she added. “They really need to take a look at if they’re over-committing themselves.”

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