Setbacks are Common Sense for Clean Water

By Beacon Staff

I literally grew up on the shores of Flathead Lake, the third generation of Flathead Valley residents. My family members were among the first merchants in Demersville in the 1880s. I carry on a tradition of a lifetime of business in the Flathead Valley.

I have seen a lot of change over my life. Most of these changes have been good. Our communities have become more vibrant, not less. We have more economic opportunities, not fewer. The same cannot be said for all of Montana.

But some changes have not been so good. We have experienced growing pains. These growing pains are worse when we fail to plan for the future.

The Flathead Valley is blessed with some of the most beautiful, clean water anywhere. Our lakes and rivers are priceless economic assets, which in part explain why our communities are thriving. Our water belongs to everyone and it benefits all of us. Unfortunately, when we have failed to plan, our clean water has suffered for it.

Here in the Flathead, people prize their property rights. We say, “this is my land and I’ll do what I like with it.” For the most part, I agree with that.

At the same time, folks in the Flathead have also always recognized we have downstream responsibilities. We believe in being good neighbors. That means respecting our waterways.

Every time there is a community planning process, people here say protecting clean water is among their highest priorities. Elected officials of all stripes campaign on the promise of protecting our water.

It’s time to make good on that promise by implementing clear, strong setbacks to keep new developments away from our rivers and streams. No one has the right to pollute our water.

We read a lot of headlines these days about the threat of coal mining in the Canadian portion of the Flathead Basin. The Canadians, in effect, are saying, “this is our land and we’ll do what we like with it.” And we are trying to remind them of their downstream responsibilities, to be good neighbors.

Let’s not forget our own responsibilities south of the border. The Flathead County Commission is considering subdivision regulations that include streamside setbacks. That is, new subdivisions would be required to build no closer than 300 feet to the Flathead River, with smaller setbacks on smaller streams. Since one size does not fit all, the regulations include provisions for special circumstances.

These rules would not apply to farmers, loggers or other small homeowners. They apply to developers when they subdivide a parcel. That’s all.

These rules are common sense. After all, rivers move and flood. It is clearly in the public’s best interest to prevent pollution in the first place.

My own home is on Bowser Spring Creek. I see every day that waterways – both large and small – are important habitat for the birds and wildlife that brighten our lives.

The new regulation has one potential loophole that concerns me: It does not apply to subdivisions hooked up to sewer systems. The buffer zone should apply to these as well. Crowding our rivers with homes and shopping centers is bad policy, regardless of whether the development is on sewers or septic systems.

In my job, I travel quite a bit. I always breathe a sigh of relief when the plane circles the Flathead River, or when I crest Polson Hill on US 93 and see Flathead Lake. That beautiful, shining clear water tells me that I am home.

In these times of constant change, that is one thing I hope will always remain the same for my children and grandchildren.

Bob Lopp lives in Kalispell