Polson Developing $17.6 Million Wastewater Treatment Plant

New infrastructure will address water quality violations in Flathead River

By Dillon Tabish
Vehicles cross the Armed Forces Memorial Bridge into Polson. Beacon File Photo

Polson is poised to complete one of the largest infrastructure projects in its history and address long-standing water quality concerns plaguing the Flathead River.

Work is underway on the city’s new $17.6 million wastewater treatment facility.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced earlier this week that Polson was approved for a pair of State Revolving Fund loans totaling $14.6 million that will fund continued development of the plant.

Polson’s current wastewater treatment facility, located along Kerr Dam Road downstream of Flathead Lake, was built in 1981. The last major improvements occurred in 2001.

The new plant, which broke ground in April and is slated for completion in fall 2018, will address water quality issues tied to effluent discharged into the Flathead River. Polson exceeded wastewater discharge limits several times in the last decade, prompting multiple monitoring violations through the Environmental Protection Agency and eventually leading to a $40,000 penalty in 2008.

The city, acknowledging health risks associated with the discharge, developed a compliance plan to meet E. coli limits and other disinfection requirements in 2015 until the new treatment facility is completed.

“We were unable to consistently treat wastewater in accord with the city’s discharge permit,” Polson City Manager Mark Shrives said in a press release. “Our treatment infrastructure was aging and outdated, and we discharge into the Flathead River, which as a high-use recreation area has more stringent standards for water quality.”

Polson Mayor Heather Knutson said various options were discussed to address the aging wastewater treatment facility, including upgrades to meet EPA standards. But those constant upgrades would have amounted to “bandages” that would cost more in the long run than building a new state-of-the-art facility, she said.

“This is much needed for our environment and the safety of all and getting the requirements met,” she said.

To design and fund the new plant, the city received several grants, including a $750,000 Treasure State Endowment Program grant and a $125,000 Renewable Resource Grant. Through the state’s SRF program, Polson will receive two loans: a 30-year loan for $14.2 million with a fixed-interest rate of 2.5 percent and a 30-year, $400,000 loan at 2.5 percent that could be forgiven if certain conditions are met.

The sizable project has also impacted taxpayers through their monthly utility bills. The city has enacted two sewer rate increases since late 2014 with a potential third hike poised for spring 2018. An average resident in Polson was previously paying roughly $20.38 a month for sewer, a rate that doubled to $42.39 in late 2014, according to Polson Finance Officer Cindy Dooley. In spring 2016, the average sewer fee increased to $56.48 a month. The potential third increase, which would be used to service the debt on the state loan, would add an additional $10 a month to an average resident’s sewer fee.

Dooley said the rate increases helped the city avoid incurring sizeable debt to fund the project in the last year.

The new treatment system will feature up-to-date technology to meet current and anticipated water quality regulations, protecting public health and safety, as well as water quality in the Flathead River system, according to the governor’s office. DOWL of Bozeman is the project’s engineering firm; Swank Enterprises of Kalispell is the project contractor.

“Modern infrastructure is vital to our economy and to the livelihood of our communities,” Bullock stated. “This investment will protect the health and well-being of our citizens, increase access to and quality of the water, and better prepare the community for new growth and development, all while creating good-paying jobs for Montanans.”

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