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Opportunities missed to protect Flathead watershed

| May 31, 2023 1:00 AM

The 68th session of the Montana Legislature recently concluded. While there have been some tacit wins for water quality, the Flathead Lakers see this as a glass-half-empty session.

In the initial months of the session, there were two excellent bills to address the increasingly dire situation related to septic leachate and its degradation of water quality. We would like to applaud both Rep. Dave Fern and Sen. Greg Hertz, legislators who represent constituents in the Flathead watershed, for their sponsorship of these bills.

Senator Hertz’s bill, SB 383, required the DEQ to study septic systems. This would have provided much-needed impetus and funding to collect data integral to future decision-making and resource allocation. SB 383 would require DEQ to collect information on individual septic systems and prepare educational materials about septics to be disseminated to local governments, health boards, and the general public.

The bill would also require the DEQ to develop model rules for septic maintenance that local governments and health boards across Montana could use to evaluate septic systems for defects and to ultimately protect water quality. Currently, local counties keep this data on file, but consistency varies widely. This bill would create a central database and state-wide model for septic evaluation. The goal of the bill was to provide septic education — not penalization — in order to protect water quality.

Rep. Fern’s bill, HB 415, would provide septic system disclosure in real estate transactions. Many newcomers, especially to the Flathead, are first-time rural residents and are unaware they are purchasing a property with a septic system, much less how to properly maintain and service it. The bill would have also provided for septic system education to increase public understanding of septic system maintenance.

Unfortunately, both of these bills were tabled in the first half of the legislative session, and did not make it out of committee.

Nowhere is this issue more important right now than in the Flathead Valley and Flathead Lake. The immense pressures of growth on a system intended for small-scale infrastructure are creating major problems. These concerns include, but are not limited to, septic maintenance and backup issues in homes, drainfield malfunction and a scarcity of locations to spread septage (biosolids from septic tanks). All of this leads to — crassly put — more poop in our waterways. This issue is more urgent than ever: the septage and biosolids facility currently being considered by the Flathead County Commissioners was needed 10 years ago.

The Flathead watershed — where we swim, fish, and get our drinking water — cannot wait another two years for septic system legislation. We urge commissioners from both Flathead and Lake Counties, and our area legislators, to implement solutions targeting septic system maintenance and replacement; expansion of access to public sewer systems; and water quality testing – all to ensure we do not further endanger the place we all love.

Kate Sheridan is executive director of Flathead Lakers in Polson.