Flathead County

Plans for County Septage Facility Moving Forward at New Lower Valley Site

Lakeside County Water and Sewer District will host an open house on June 13 to provide information about new wastewater treatment plant

By Micah Drew
Lakeside County Water and Sewer District truck on May 15, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The future of waste treatment in Flathead County continues to take shape following the transfer of a septage facility project from Flathead County to the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District (LCWSD) last month. Now, the district is working through the project, design, permitting and environmental assessment phases for the regional treatment facility with plans for an open house next month to engage the public in the process.

With the decision by the Flathead County commissioners in March to relinquish control of the project and pass along roughly $21 million in funding, largely stemming from federal grants, the district is now fully in control of the project’s future, including the location.

Last fall, the commissioners purchased a 36.9-acre property on Wiley Dike Road with the intent of constructing a facility that would be able to treat 5 million gallons of waste annually and signed an agreement in March to sell that property to LCWSD. However, the LCWSD is instead planning to make use of an existing property it owns in the Lower Valley on the corner of U.S. 93 and Somers Stage.

“We did a feasibility study with engineers to figure out what our options were to modify our existing facilities and this parcel felt like a much better situation,” LCWSD manager Rodney Olson said. The district currently uses the property as a land application site to dispose of treated waste.  “It’s closer to the highway, it’s easier for trucks to access and will be less impactful to the community.”

Site of a proposed septage facility near the junction of Somers Stage Road and U.S. Hwy 93 for the Lakeside Water and Sewer District, pictured May 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Lakeside County Water and Sewer District has operated for 36 years, treating residential waste in a sewer treatment facility and a series of lagoon ponds in the Lower Valley. The district is governed by a five-member board serving four-year staggered terms. Voters in a May 7 special election — the first contested election for the district in decades – chose three incumbent board members to serve additional terms.  

Olson said that when the federal government announced its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grants for water and sewer projects in 2021, the district began planning to expand its lagoon system and upgrade its lift station.

“We were initially looking to spend $6 million to build a new storage pond, but then over time and with laws changing that cost ended up being closer to $12 million,” Olson said. “We switched gears and decided we couldn’t keep building ponds out there. Those are meant for truly rural areas and there are more and more houses out there now. We figured if we’re going to talk about spending $12 million, we should spend it on something that can output cleaner effluent.”

The district’s plans changed to building a new headworks facility and upgrading the existing wastewater treatment facility, and early discussions were held with Flathead County about the possibility of combining efforts to handle septage disposal as well, a rising concern in the county with its recent spurt of population growth. According to the county health department, there are roughly 30,000 septic systems in the region, while available farmland for land application has shrunk, and the need for a facility that can accept and treat septage became a priority in the last few years.

The county ended up pushing forward with plans to build its facility for initial septage treatment, which would then be delivered to LCWSD for additional treatment. The county purchased the Wiley Dike property in September as the best available option for the new facility.

Ultimately, with the cost of the project increasing, and the county’s desire to have another entity manage the facility once built, discussions returned to a combined facility that Lakeside would manage and in March the commissioners signed a new Interlocal Agreement to transfer jurisdiction of the project to Lakeside, subject to several contingencies including acquiring permits, meeting operational deadlines and filing regular updates with the county.

“It’s a win-win for the county and it’s a win-win for the Lakeside District, because some of that money goes into the treatment plant we were already planning to build,” Olson said.

There will be two phases to the facilities construction. The first will consist of a new screening and grit removal facility, which will be built at the district’s existing wastewater treatment site to screen raw septage and remove inorganic materials. Construction will also begin on the new receiving and treatment facility where septage pumped from septage tanks can be disposed.    

Phase two will include construction of the specialized wastewater treatment facility to treat the district’s normal wastewater along with the additional septage, providing a higher level of treatment than is currently provided. Treated water will be discharged into the ground and through open ponds.

The latest estimate for both phases of the wastewater treatment facility upgrade project is between $26 million and $30 million, with construction tentatively slated to begin this coming winter. As part of the agreement, the county will pave approximately 550 feet of Somers Stage Road by the end of 2026 and, according to the timeline laid out by LCWSD, the full facility will be operational by 2027.

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

Jennifer Tipton, president of the North Shore Water Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting water quality north of Flathead Lake, has been a vocal opponent of the septage plant, particularly its original location on Wiley Dike Road near where her family lives and owns property.

“While the new location is better than what they originally planned, the entire situation is still not ideal,” Tipton told the Beacon. “I still have a lot of concerns about the water around here.”

Tipton is worried the groundwater injection site, located uphill from her family’s irrigation ditch, will not provide the level of dilution the district promises it will. However, Olson says that the permits through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will ensure that any discharge meets the state’s environmental standards.

The district has applied for a groundwater discharge permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which is required by the Interlocal Agreement to receive county funds. Olson said the district has been working with DEQ on the permit and is responding to the second Notice of Deficiency in their permit application, which is part of the process for obtaining a permit.

The Flathead County Commission, Evergreen Water and Sewer District, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., and Speaker of the Montana House Matt Regier all submitted letters to DEQ in support of the discharge permit. Olson said he expects the permit will be granted soon.

“The idea with the groundwater discharge is that we can stop building ponds, which is better for everyone,” Olson said. “In a few years we’ll be putting out really good, clean effluent, compared to what we are doing today.”

Tipton also has concerns about future uses for the Wiley Dike Property the district will own. Use and any future sale of the property by the district is subject to contingencies in the agreements signed by LCWSD and Flathead County. Olson said that right now the district plans to hold on to the Wiley Dike property for future use, as land in the lower valley will only become scarcer.

The Lakeside County Water and Sewer District, along with Robert Peccia and Associates, will host an open house meeting on June 13 at the Somers-Lakeside Firehall from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The public is invited to see the updated plans, view exhibits, talk with the project team and provide feedback. More information about the project can be found online.

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