Forest Service Says Leaking Sewage Plant Did Not Contaminate Groundwater Near Holland Lake

The USFS shut down a waste treatment plant earlier this year after a leak was found in a wastewater lagoon

By Justin Franz, Montana Free Press
Holland Lake near Condon on Dec. 26, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The U.S. Forest Service has announced that monitoring wells installed along the north shore of Holland Lake this fall found that a leaking wastewater treatment plant did not impact groundwater in the area. 

Earlier this year, the Forest Service discovered that one of the wastewater lagoons that serves a campground and the nearby Holland Lake Lodge was leaking more than legally permitted. Upon the discovery of the leak, the system was shut down and the USFS worked with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to replace the lagoon liner and monitor the water quality around the site. USFS officials said in a press release last week that three monitoring wells were installed. 

“We always strive to protect our resources, and we are pleased that there is no evidence of groundwater contamination,” said Flathead National Forest Deputy Forest Supervisor Tami MacKenzie. “We also appreciate the guidance and cooperation of the DEQ as we move ahead with plans to improve the wastewater treatment system at Holland Lake that provides the opportunity for so many people to visit and recreate at Holland Lake.”

In that same press release, DEQ Water Quality Division Administrator Lindsey Krywaruchka said the agency was pleased with the results of the test and its collaboration with the Forest Service. 

The wastewater at Holland Lake is treated by natural and biochemical processes inside a lagoon before being sprayed into the forest. Such systems are common in rural communities because they have lower maintenance requirements. However, in recent years, the Forest Service has not pumped water out of the lagoons to spray into the forest as much as it did in the early 2000s, despite there not being a drop in the number of people using the facilities at Holland Lake. The issue with the lagoon was first publicized earlier this year by Save Holland Lake, a group that opposed a proposed expansion at the Holland Lake Lodge. 

That expansion was spearheaded by the lodge’s owner, Christian Wohlfeil, and Utah-based POWDR. However, the plans faced major public backlash over concerns that such a development — which would expand the lodge’s footprint — would threaten both the environment and the local character. Those plans have since been shelved, and Wohlfeil said he is looking for a new owner for the lodge. 

But on Monday morning, the group Save Holland Lake cast doubt on the USFS’ claims that there were no issues with groundwater near the lake. According to a press release, members of the group spoke with Flathead National Forest staff who said there were elevated nitrogen levels found in all three test wells but the levels were below allowable trigger levels for violations under the federal Clean Water Act.

“That is different from the press release stating that ‘the results indicated no groundwater contamination,’” said Save Holland Lake volunteer David Roberts.

The group stated that the U.S. Forest Service should release all data related to the groundwater tests to the public. 

“The Flathead National Forest continues to operate in a way that is not transparent and not accountable to the public to rebuild public trust — so it’s hard to take them at their word,” Roberts said.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.

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