City Officials Discuss Wastewater Treatment Costs

Meeting highlights the sources of pollution, costs of new facilities

By Molly Priddy

The Flathead Wastewater Regional Management Group met on Sept. 29 to discuss the current status and potential future options for wastewater treatment and management, with dozens of people in attendance.

The main topic of discussion was the financial burden laid on cities for wastewater treatment with increasingly tight regulations from the state and federal agencies.

These agencies, specifically the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality, regulate city wastewater treatment facilities as point sources of pollution.

Septic systems are tracked by the state, Tom Cowen of P.E., Carver Engineering, said, and are considered non-point sources of pollution. Counties should be tracking these systems instead, he said, because the state’s records are incomplete.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the actual number of septic systems,” Cowen said. “There’s still a lot going in.”

Joe Russell, public health officer for Flathead County, said in the last 28 years, about 14,000 septic systems have gone in countywide. The county health department works to keep track of these sites the best it can, he said, but better regulations are needed, especially when it comes to septage disposal.

“We think perhaps we should regulate septage at a health-board level,” Russell said.

Columbia Falls city councilor Mike Shepard noted that Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls have spent tens of millions of dollars on wastewater treatment facilities, while the non-point pollution sources – the diffuse sources of wastewater, such as septic systems and stormwater runoff – are causing the lion’s share of pollution.

Shari Johnson, the city engineer for Polson, agreed with Shepard’s analysis, saying that non-point sources are important to look at when discussing future wastewater treatment because cities are paying millions for upgrades that affect a small percentage of the actual wastewater problem.

“We’re the easy target,” Johnson said. “I’m not convinced that the municipal sources are the ones we should be going after.”

Polson has been the epicenter for the wastewater treatment debate, with the city commission having recently voted to increase sewer and water rates by about $25 per homeowner.

The city argued that the increase is necessary to pay for a new, $19 million wastewater treatment facility and to replace the water main underneath the downtown streets.

Polson had known it would need to replace the pipes and get a new facility for about a decade, but hadn’t done anything about the issue until this year.

Presentations at the workshop included information from the Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, city representatives from Columbia Falls and Polson, and discussions with county and municipal officials.

Possible future options to help municipalities pay for expensive treatment facilities include wastewater nutrient trade programs – a market for buying and selling nutrient credits for phosphorus and nitrogen – as well as programs such as the state revolving fund, which provides low-interest loans for cities working on water pollution and drinking water projects.