News & Features

A Turn of the Tide

How an early grassroots campaign to protect Flathead Lake produced one of the nation’s largest bans on phosphorus-containing laundry detergents and a multi-million dollar overhaul of local water treatment facilities

Thirty-five years ago, in the spring of 1985, hundreds of Flathead Valley residents packed into a local high school auditorium to watch a spirited debate unfold between a local biologist and two corporate soap scientists.

It wasn’t the sort of ring-of-fire spectacle that usually draws a crowd, but in this case the stakes had never been higher for local communities whose economy was growing more dependent on the water quality of the sprawling and crystalline Flathead Lake.

In one corner of the debate stage, Jack Stanford, the tall and imposing director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS), laid out a rigorous scientific defense for the health of the largest freshwater lake this side of the Mississippi; in the other corner, the soap shills advocated a cleaner, brighter future for the nation’s dirty laundry.

It wasn’t much of a contest. With his cool and confident delivery, Stanford edged the pro-soap contingent (representatives from the powerful Procter & Gamble Company) up against the ropes, and moderators repeatedly hushed an unruly audience that grew increasingly hostile toward the industry interlopers.

“Those poor boys from Procter & Gamble never stood a chance. At one point, I was worried about their safety,” Stanford, now retired, said in a phone interview from his home in Twisp, Washington. “I was just a youngster from the bio station taking on a powerful industry sector, but I was confident I could win that debate because I had the science and the data. All they had was a compound that was really effective at causing the dirt to come out of your clothes, but it was destroying the lake.”

The cleaning compound at the center of the dispute was phosphorus and its industry proponents were represented by the Soap and Detergent Association, which fought tooth and nail as the state of Montana and Flathead and Lake counties, in conjunction with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, implemented a ban of phosphorus-containing cleaning products, prohibiting their sale at local retail establishments.

“This was a pretty conservative community,” Stanford continued, “and regulations were not very popular. But everybody loves the lake, and it didn’t take the local community very long to figure out that the soap industry didn’t have their best interests at stake.”

Dr. Jack Stanford is seen at the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Yellow Bay. Stanford is the former longtime director of the biological station. Beacon File Photo

At the time, Stanford’s monitoring studies showed that wastewater from household sewage was high in biologically active phosphorus, the key nutrient causing increased algal growth in the lake, and sewage plants in the Flathead Valley were adding more than 20 tons of phosphorus per year to the upper Flathead River system.

A state law passed in 1985 over fierce opposition from the soap and detergent industry gave counties the option to ban phosphate detergents, so long as the ban was part of an overall plan to abate phosphorus contaminating lakes within the county. Flathead County became the first in Montana — and one of the first in the nation — to adopt the ban through a countywide ballot initiative, and Lake County followed closely on its heels.

Study the labels on detergent bottles at the local supermarket and phosphorus isn’t among the list of compounds, but back then it was standard fare, and its prohibition was hard fought.

“I distinctly remember the hearing in the senate,” Bob Brown, the former Republican secretary of state and senate president, said. “There was a shrewd old lobbyist name Jerome Anderson representing the detergent companies, and the effect of our bill was to outlaw detergents that were too high in phosphorus. I remember Jerry Anderson’s response was that if we were serious about getting rid of phosphorus in the lake we should go after the fertilizer companies. You could see his strategy was to get the whole agricultural community to band together against us. We didn’t want to do that. But Jack Stanford was a very charismatic guy and a really effective public speaker, and he convinced us that soap was enough of a problem. So we nibbled around the edges of the problem and got the bill passed.”

Within a year of the local retail ban on phosphorus-containing laundry detergents, the rate of phosphorus rushing into Flathead Lake had dropped 25 percent and the Soap and Detergent Association agreed to finance a $65,000 study by Stanford and the Flathead Lake Biological Station to better understand the algae problem.

“The detergent makers knew they could put out products that didn’t contain phosphorus; they just didn’t want to do it because it was more expensive to change their manufacturing protocols,” Stanford said. “And they damn sure didn’t want a little town in Northwest Montana telling Procter & Gamble and the other big corporations that they had to change their manufacturing protocols. What we did was initiate the responsiveness in a local community to take care of its number-one economic driver — its lake — and that persists today.”

As the oldest biological field station in the Western Hemisphere, the Flathead institution has served as the “Sentinel of the Lake” since 1899, tracking water quality, influencing sweeping change in local environmental practices and gathering a groundswell of data.

In 1977, it instituted a scientifically rigorous monitoring program that served as the first line of defense against current and future threats to the health and quality of the Flathead watershed. These threats range from aquatic invasive species — like zebra and quagga mussels, first detected in the Missouri River Basin of Montana in 2016 — to nutrient and biological pollution from degraded shoreline septic systems.

Research conducted at FLBS has been an informative force behind significant water-quality conservation achievements, including the ban of phosphorus-containing detergents and the prevention of mining in the upper North Fork Flathead River. Flathead Lake continues to defy national trends as a healthy blue body of water.

Sunset on Flathead Lake as see from Wayfarers Park in Bigfork on Feb. 20, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But in the mid-80s, Stanford’s research at the Flathead Lake station pointed to phosphorus as the key nutrient causing increased algal growth in the lake. It also identified phosphate laundry detergents as a relatively small but potent source of the biologically active compound entering the Flathead river and lake system in treated sewage effluent.

Even if laundry detergent represented a fraction of the problem, it wasn’t trivial, Stanford said, and reducing the use of products containing the chemical yielded a seismic paradigm shift in the community’s way of thinking about water quality and the need to upgrade a system of badly outmoded treatment plants.

“We determined that sewage treatment in the Flathead was really bad, and Kalispell was especially problematic, especially in the Evergreen area where you just had septic going into the Flathead aquifer and directly to the lake,” Stanford said. “The population was growing, the ski area was becoming popular, there was all kinds of development taking place, and yet we had this really primitive sewage treatment system. But what can be done? You can’t ban development overnight, so we banned phosphorus-containing detergents. And that led to a campaign for more efficiency in water treatment across the board.”

That shift in thinking, coupled with the increase of algal blooms visible on Flathead Lake, produced a cascade of community-wide initiatives aimed at protecting the water quality of Flathead Lake.

“An unprecedented lakewide bloom of potentially toxic blue-green algae in the summer of 1983 convinced most lake watchers that Flathead Lake was indeed sick,” Steve Pilcher, head of the Water Quality Bureau of the state Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, wrote in a report supporting the creation of a water quality watchdog on Flathead Lake.

Established by the Montana Legislature in 1983, the Flathead Basin Commission was tasked with standing sentry over the region’s prized local waters and studied the need for upgraded treatment facilities in earnest. By 1985, it issued a report that underscored the need for a more effective water treatment strategy.

“The importance of upgraded municipal treatment plants to the health of the Flathead basin cannot be overstated. The financial loss to the local economy because of a deteriorating lake would be far greater than the cost of upgrading facilities,” the 1985 Flathead Basin Commission report stated.

Local communities followed suit.

In Lakeside, residents approved a $940,000 bond to pay for their portion of a new $3.16 million sewer system, while Kalispell upgraded its plant through a $2 million project that was among the best in the country.

Ric Hauer, a retired University of Montana professor of limnology who worked alongside Stanford, credits the former director of the biological station for mounting the successful campaign to curb the influx of phosphorus and build better treatment infrastructure.

“He just did a yeoman’s amount of work to make sure that initiative went through,” Hauer said. “There was a whole team of people fighting this, and it was all led by the lobbyists and a whole raft of attorneys from the detergent industry. This wasn’t just some low-grade battle; this really got downright nasty. They went after Jack’s credentials, because when you can’t defeat the science then you go after the scientist. But Jack held up under the pressure and convinced the Legislature that it was something that was really important to do. It was so far on the leading edge of the overall environmental movement taking place that Jack was seen as a hero across the country.”

The longest-serving director in the biological station’s 121-year history, Stanford spent 44 years at the facility, the last 36 as its director, just the seventh director since Morton J. Elrod founded the research facility in 1899, only six years after the University of Montana was chartered.

In 2016, the world-renowned freshwater ecologist Jim Elser accepted the reins from Stanford, and builds on his predecessor’s expertise on nutrient loading — Elser is best known for his role in developing and testing the theory of ecological stoichiometry, which is the study of the balance of energy and chemical elements such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in ecological systems.

Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, drinks a glass of water with zooplankton during a ceremony in Yellow Bay on Aug. 5, 2015. Beacon File Photo

Last year, that expertise earned Elser the distinguished honor of joining the National Academy of Sciences, membership to which is one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States.

“It’s fortuitous that when I retired the guy who replaced me, Jim Elser, is an expert on phosphorus dynamics in lake ecoystems, so the legacy is being carried on at Flathead Lake, and non-phosphate containing detergents have been on the market since the 1980s,” Stanford said. “We achieved what we wanted and today there’s a lot less phosphorus coming into the watershed.”

Still, the list of other, more harmful sources of water-quality degradation is long. Storm-water runoff into the lake, the Flathead River and its tributaries from roads and parking lots is a primary source of nutrient loading that causes algae blooms and other symptoms of degraded water quality, Elser said.

But the effects of the phosphorus ban and its widespread adoption helped usher in another century of clean, clear water, he said.

“It is because of the station and the local community that was engaged and had all this information that we were able to make the right decisions in the face of strong opposition,” Elser said. “To show the lake was super sensitive to phosphorus, and that there was a connection to these algae blooms, that put people on notice while all these decisions were being made.

“It’s pretty cool that Flathead Lake was ahead of its time in taking that step,” Elser continued. “It’s one of the few lakes in the world where phosphorus levels are actually declining over a period of decades, and that’s because people saw what was taking place.”

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