Bigfork Stormwater Project Gaining Ground

By Beacon Staff

Installing two groundwater monitors on Lake Street in Bigfork may not sound like a party, but it is certainly cause for celebration for the Bigfork Stormwater Advisory Committee.

The monitors, along with a contract with Kalispell-based 48 North Engineering, are another step the project, which previously focused on applying for grant funding. Now, the committee is on its way to commissioning a final engineering report, a key step that would lead to system improvements.

BSAC Chairman Sue Hanson said she is optimistic about their progress, despite the engineering work that still needs to be done before a new system can be installed.

The project has gained considerable ground since the committee was formed in 2008. Tests in the past two decades determined that the Bigfork’s stormwater drains directly into Bigfork Bay, Flathead Lake and Swan River, bringing with it toxins, oil and unhealthy amounts of fecal coliform bacteria.

The Flathead County commissioners created the BSAC to find out how the drainage system – an uncharted maze that has been in place since the mid-1950s – needs to be fixed.

County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said the efforts from the people in Bigfork to fix this problem have been “extraordinary,” especially since none of the funding has come from county taxpayers.

“Because of the efforts of the people in Bigfork, there’s a significant amount of acreage that used to run into Flathead Lake and it’s no longer doing so,” Brenneman said.

After rigorous grant applications and visits to the state capitol, the BSAC secured $650,000 in Treasure State Endowment Program grants, along with grants from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, totaling over $750,000.

The catch with the TSEP grants is that Bigfork must be able to match the funds before the grant monies are available. For a town Bigfork’s size, this would mean implementing a special improvement district, a voter-approved tax, Hanson said.

However, the BSAC was hoping to use the grant money to fund a final engineering report on the project’s costs. Without that report, voters wouldn’t know exactly what they would be approving on the ballot, Hanson said.

Still, Hanson said the prospective tax has received support from the Bigfork Steering Committee and the Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork.

Despite the grant money conundrum, Hanson said there have been successes over the summer. With considerable help from the Bigfork school district, new stormwater filtration systems were installed at the high school and have proven to be very effective, filtering 95 percent of stormwater runoff back into the groundwater tables. The filtration results could alter the project’s initial engineering reports.

“It has made a huge difference in the amount (of stormwater) that we will eventually have to treat,” Hanson said. “That’s changed our perspective as far as engineering is concerned.”

The new groundwater monitors also play a role in moving forward, allowing the group to watch how the water tables fluctuate through the year. Any stormwater system would have to be installed above the groundwater mark, which can be tricky living next to a lake, Hanson said.

The grant money already acquired will be used to pay for the first phase of the project, which includes replacing and upgrading the drainage system and installing underground filtration for Grand Drive and installing hydrodynamic devices in the Grand Street, Bridge Street and River Street drainage basins.

But new engineering options could make the project cheaper and require less maintenance, Hanson said, which could mean grant money left over for the project’s remaining phases.

The preliminary engineering report from 48 North will allow BSAC to send out requests for quotes on the project’s final engineering report, which could be sent out as early as January, Hanson said.

Brenneman acknowledged that there are significant challenges ahead for the project, but said he is continually impressed by the committee’s perseverance. Instead of waiting for the state to tell them they needed to fix the problem, Bigfork recognized it and took action, Brenneman said.

Hanson, who is waiting to hear about a prospective grant from the DNRC worth $100,000, said the project has been trying but worthwhile.

“I was a little gray when this first started and I’m a lot grayer now,” Hanson said. “It’s extremely rewarding to see how things just fall in place.”

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