The Flathead County commissioners met with the Lake County commissioners and tribal representatives last week to discuss possibly forming a local water quality district in an attempt to keep Flathead Lake free of invasive species.
The district would encompass the Flathead Basin and would provide local control over any programs targeting invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels, the commissioners said.
“I really do see this as an effort to strengthen the partnership between Flathead and Lake counties,” Lake County Commissioner Paddy Trusler said.
According to Caryn Miske of the Flathead Basin Commission, county governments create a local water quality district to protect and improve surface and groundwater quality. Counties have a lot of flexibility when it comes to creating the districts, she said, because they can identify their own goals and tailor the district to meet those goals. Through a water quality district, administrators are able to collect fees from improved properties, administer local ordinances and apply for grants and loans, among other tools.
Missoula, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark and Butte-Silver Bow counties have water quality districts; the first three charge annual fees of $5 to $9 to landowners to help fund their programs, which largely focus on public education and outreach, Miske said.
Silverbow’s district is mostly funded by local industry to study surface water quality.
Miske told the commissioners that a water quality district feasibility study group took an inventory of what the counties and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are already doing to protect Flathead Lake.
The study found gaps in invasive species protection, educational outreach, defense against hazardous materials and dealing with storm and wastewater, she said.
The top priority, Miske said, looks to be battling invasive species. A local water quality district could help add to the finances already coming from the state, which she said are “woefully inadequate” at $343,000 a year.
“We’re not even in the ballpark of what will suffice,” Miske said.
The state of Idaho, for example, spends millions on their program, which the Army Corps of Engineers estimates as equivalent to saving $25 to $75 in clean-up costs per dollar spent on prevention.
“We know what needs to be done but we don’t have the funding to do it,” Miske said.
The commissioners expressed concern for keeping the lake free of invasive species, and extolled the virtues of having local control over any program that could be implemented to fight the invaders.
Teamwork among the government entities is paramount, the commissioners noted.
“If we don’t have coordinated efforts, we’re just spinning our wheels,” Trusler said.
Trusler also noted that it would take public participation and education over anything else to keep the species out. There needs to be public outreach to encourage people to take personal responsibility and get their boats checked and cleaned, he said.
“That’s why we’re here, because that lake is pristine and it’s clean and we need to put forth the local effort to keep it that way,” Trusler said.
Flathead County Commissioner Dale Lauman said a water quality district would help unify these efforts, and would also make it easier to solicit money from funding sources because there would be an overarching goal and organization in place.
Mike Durglo, environmental director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the Flathead Reservation is willing to work with the counties if it means protecting the lake.
“We have the same concerns as you folks do because it’s our home; it’s all of our home,” he said. “We are very concerned about invasive species because we share that beautiful resource.”
Before a district is formed, there would have to be a series of public meetings and a protest period from affected landowners. The commissioners agreed to stay in communication with one another about the formation of a district, while saying it would be better to start sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s something we need to move on,” Lauman said.
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