Bigfork’s Storm Water Dilemma

By Beacon Staff

In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s summary of national waters reported that about 40 percent of streams, 45 percent of lakes and 50 percent of estuaries that were assessed were not clean enough to support fishing and swimming; polluted mostly by sediments, excess nutrients and harmful microorganisms.

Could that happen in Bigfork?

At present, the water quality of our rivers, bay and lake is still good though it is showing signs of stress. We can keep it healthy if we act now. But to do so, we must deal with a major threat – storm water. Storm water and snow melt carry myriad pollutants that contribute the majority of total water pollution. Storm water from roofs, yards, streets, alleys, parking lots, roads, homes, and businesses ends up in Bigfork drains where it travels directly into the Bigfork Bay.

Bigfork’s storm water system was built in the 1950s, prior to present standards. Over time it has greatly deteriorated. Bigfork’s storm water system flows unfiltered directly into the bay. Bigfork’s sewer system wasn’t designed to handle storm water, but storm water does encroach on the sewer system during a torrential, sustained rain, or big snowmelt. The net effect is that the additional water overcomes the treatment facility and the bay receives the results.

During rain events, storm water races across buildings, land and roadways carrying with it roofing material, litter, animal waste, fecal bacteria, degreasers, solvents, pesticides, insecticides, Styrofoam, plastics, fertilizer and much more. Everything spilled on the ground or pavement is swept along with the free-flowing water. Bigfork doesn’t have the storm water or filtering system to protect the Swan River, Flathead River, Bigfork Bay or Flathead Lake from the damage this volume of unfiltered water can cause.

The growth spurt Bigfork has experienced with new homes and businesses with additional roofs, paved areas, roads, driveways and parking lots contribute to making the situation worse. These hard surfaces don’t allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground. They prevent storm water pollutants from soaking in where it can be reduced by the soils, gravels and sands of the subsurface ground. Instead, storm water pours off these surfaces, causing stream bank erosion and the destruction of habitat for fish and other stream biota as it carries with it gasoline, tar, oil, bits of tires tread, anti-freeze, salts, de-icer, animal droppings and more in its race down to our waterways.

Many in our community know what we would lose if we lose healthy water. Economic loss would occur if our beautiful bay and lake were no longer attractive for water activities. The bucolic setting of Bigfork, brought on largely by its proximity to freely flowing and clean water, is worth preserving.

In January 2008, the Flathead County Commissioners appointed local citizens, the Bigfork Storm Water Advisory Committee, to advise the commission on solutions to the storm water problem. A grant from Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Flathead Basin Commission provided funding for a recent engineering study to determine the current condition of our storm water system and offer solutions for upgrading. Flathead County is currently in the process of applying for a grant from the Treasure State Endowment Program to partially fund the restoration of Bigfork’s storm water system. To be successful everyone in the Bigfork zoning area needs to share their experiences with storm water runoff and snow melt. Personal stories and citizen participation strengthen the probability of receiving the grant. The grant funds will make it possible for Bigfork to restore a quality storm water system that can help keep our water healthy and beautiful.

For more information contact Sue Hanson, BSAC Chairman, at 837-5323 or [email protected]. The Bigfork Steering Committee Web site has a page dedicated to the Stormwater effort at bigforksteering.org.

Sally Janover lives in Bigfork.