Flathead County

County Signs Agreement for Lower Valley Septage Facility

The Flathead County Commissioners voted to move forward with a property purchase and interlocal agreement with Lakeside sewer district

By Micah Drew
Proposed site of a new county septage treatment facility off of Wiley Dike Road in the Lower Valley area south of Kalispell on Nov. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commissioners at their Sept. 14 meeting closed on the purchase of a 36.9-acre property in the Lower Valley to serve as the site of a regional septage facility in the county, and signed an interlocal agreement with the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District (LCWSD) to dispose of the resulting wastewater. The county will purchase the property at 305 Wiley Dike Road for $1.5 million, leveraging federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Plans for a regional septage facility have been in the works for a decade, according to county officials. Last December, the county commissioners, along with HDR Engineering, the firm in charge of designing the treatment plant, gave public presentations detailing the need for the new facility and summarizing the lengthy deliberations that went into determining its best location. The facility is being designed using 20-year population projections and would be able to treat 5 million gallons of waste annually.

“We’ve been at this for 20 years trying to find a septage facility, knowing full well we’re running out of property to do it correctly. We need to look at this facility for what it’s worth — the location to the Lakeside lagoons, location for accessibility, and the fact that we can build this correctly,” former Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell said during public comment. “It’s the right thing to do at the right time.”

According to the Flathead County Health Department, there are roughly 30,000 septic tanks in Flathead County with nearly 700 new permits issued in 2022 alone. On average, between 20,000 and 40,000 gallons of septage is pumped from the tanks each day, while available disposal sites are at a premium. 

Last year, the health department reported receiving calls almost every day related to a lack of disposal sites, including from porta potty companies that were unable to find waste haulers with contracts that allowed for increased disposal. The local municipal wastewater treatment plants have stringent limits on the amount of waste they can accept from outside municipal limits. In addition, Glacier Gold, a company that recycles biosolid waste into compost, has hit capacity. 

The Commission approved a buy-sell agreement for the property in July after initially rejecting the acquisition in March following public opposition to the proposed location. During Thursday’s meeting, the purchase agreement for the Wiley Dike Property passed unanimously, while commissioner Randy Brodehl provided the lone dissenting vote on the interlocal agreement, expressing his concerns that the Lakeside district did not yet have a permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for a planned expansion that would allow the county to utilize it for wastewater disposal.

LCWSD manager Rodney Olson said he anticipates receiving their DEQ permit for expansion in the next few months, and commissioner Pam Holmquist pointed out that the interlocal agreement includes a contingency that if the district does not receive its permit, the county will recover the initial payment.

A sign in opposition to a proposed county septage treatment facility off of Wiley Dike Road in the Lower Valley area south of Kalispell on Nov. 29, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Members of the public again raised concerns about the septage facility at the commissioners’ Sept. 14 meeting, including over alleged discrepancies in the property’s appraisal, environmental factors and the perceived impact to their own property values and livelihoods.

Jennifer Tipton, who owns property nearby and has been a vocal opponent throughout the process, said she doesn’t understand why the county focused on this location, which borders residential parcels.

“You will be concentrating the entire county’s waste around my family and neighbors and just one mile from Flathead Lake,” Tipton said, adding concerns about the value of the property. According to Tipton, her family offered to purchase the property themselves for a higher price than the county, but had their offer rejected.

County staff reiterated to the commission that they had done due diligence in researching more than a dozen different lcoations throughout the Flathead Valley, but few met the criteria for a regional septage facility, including property size, easy highway access, cost, and proximity to an existing water treatment facility. One potential option in Columbia Falls was discounted after an environmental assessment raised too many concerns, while another property south of Kalispell was deemed far too expensive, at $9 million, for consideration, even as part of a larger county complex.

The Evergreen Water and Sewer District has expressed support for the project, as have the Kalispell and Whitefish chambers of commerce, city of Columbia Falls, the Flathead Basin Commission and the DEQ.

The county currently has around $17 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that can be dedicated to water and sewer projects, $7 million of which needs to be expensed by the end of next year, putting a timeline on moving forward with the facility.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there in the public that we didn’t have public hearings, that we didn’t do our homework, that we didn’t work at this. That isn’t’ true,” Commissioner Pam Holmquist said. “I am more than willing to move forward with this as proposed to try to move a process forward that is direly needed in our community. We’ve done our due diligence, and this is the best spot.”