Local residents call it Bigfork’s “dirty little secret.”
Stormwater from the town drains directly into Swan River, Bigfork Bay and Flathead Lake, untreated, picking up pollutants like oil and assorted chemicals along the way. There are no installation records for the system – best guesses put its inception around the mid-1950s – and no maps of its mysterious waterways.
Last summer, volunteers dropped tennis balls into drains while people watched to see where they came out in an effort to determine the pipes’ paths. Some of the balls never came out.
But since it’s inception a year ago, the Bigfork Stormwater Advisory Committee has made immense progress toward a solution, funding and completing a preliminary engineering report – a study required to obtain further granting.
Now, the committee must navigate another challenging system: winning more public monies to pay to rebuild the bizarre pipe drainages.
This week and next, representatives from BSAC and County Commissioner Joe Brenneman will be traveling to Helena to argue for a grant from the Treasure State Endowment Program and a grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources. TSEP provides monies to lower the cost of constructing public facilities, while DNRC funds water quality, education and groundwater projects through its “319 grants.”
“We’re not rated highly for the TSEP grant, but we’re still going to go and give them the pep talk on why this is important,” Hanson said. “If we don’t get it, it’s not because this isn’t important, it’s because we don’t have raw sewage leaking and others do.”
If the group is successful in getting funding, engineering work on the project will begin immediately. If not, it will be temporarily stalled as the committee searches for other options.
It’s taken a dogged effort to get the project this far.
Throughout the summer, BSAC volunteers hosted educational booths at community events, talking to anyone who would listen about the village’s stormwater issues. Volunteers logged hours studying the system and applying for grants.
A collaboration with the Bigfork school district provided the biggest boost so far: a state-of-the-art stormwater retention system, installed during the school’s construction project to help alleviate runoff from the school site to Grand Avenue and beyond.
“That is the single most significant improvement that’s happened and we appreciate the efforts you made,” Brenneman told Bigfork Superintendent Russ Kinzer at a meeting last week.
And other communities in the Flathead are taking note: a Bigfork drainage renovation could lead the way for similar projects in Somers and Lakeside, which most likely have similar situations.
“The west side of the lake, we’re looking at what’s happening in Bigfork, because we see the same conditions developing in our area as we continue to grow more,” Commissioner Dale Lauman said.
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