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Flathead County passes septage treatment facility to Lakeside district

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | March 27, 2024 12:00 AM

Flathead County is handing over the construction and future operation of a regional septage treatment facility to the Lakeside County Water and Sewer District.

County commissioners on March 19 approved an interlocal agreement that provides payment of up to about $23.5 million to Lakeside to build the facility and sets terms of its operations for the next 20 years. Commissioners lauded the move, which is a departure from the county’s original plan to construct the facility itself and use the district for wastewater disposal. 

“We very much need this in our county,” Commissioner Brad Abell said of the treatment facility. “If we don’t maintain septic tanks it does affect the quality of our water. We are taking care of water by working with Lakeside.” 

Two watchdog groups — Citizens for a Better Flathead and North Shore Water Alliance — have raised concerns about the plan. Both say the county should wait to enter into an agreement until Lakeside has received approval from the state Department of Environmental Quality for the facility. 

Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, questioned whether Lakeside has the legal authority to enter the contract. 

“We’re asking you to pause this decision,” Flowers told commissioners. “A pause will allow you and the public to go to DEQ and say we need a roadmap for this, and we can get this addressed in the long term for the community.” 

Commissioner Pam Holmquist dismissed the idea that the county is rushing the decision. 

“I can tell you that the concept of this facility has been in the works for many, many years,” she said. “Flathead County is not overseeing this project. We don’t have the authority or ability to do this. DEQ is the oversight agency on all water and sewer districts. DEQ has stringent regulations that Lakeside will have to follow and I don’t think any one of us would want to do anything to harm Flathead Lake.” 

The Lakeside board on March 19 also approved the agreement with the county. 

Rodney Olson, general manager of the Lakeside district, said the district wants to protect the environment. The district in the past had conversations with private businesses about constructing a septage treatment plant, but it was deemed cost prohibitive, Olson said, so when the county brought forward its proposal the district was interested in being involved. 

“We care about the lake and the water quality,” he said. “The reason the district was formed 38 years ago was to get septics off the lake and the whole purpose of the district is to protect the water quality.” 

Lakeside plans to construct a new wastewater treatment facility that will be able accommodate septage waste, along with improving its ability to treat wastewater and increase overall capacity. 

Olson said the district has applied with the Department of Environmental Quality for a groundwater discharge permit as part of its planned upgrades and once engineering for the new facility is ready will submit plans to the state to obtain permits. 

Department spokesperson Moira Davin in an email to the Inter Lake confirmed the state agency is aware of potential upgrades to Lakeside’s facility and that any application would follow it’s review process to ensure it meets all state requirements. 

THE COUNTY’S agreement with Lakeside specifies that the district must obtain all the necessary project permits from the Department of Environmental Quality by Dec. 31 and it has until Dec. 31, 2026 to construct the facility. It also requires quarterly progress reports to be sent to the county. 

The county agreement with Lakeside specifies that the county will provide about $21.76 million in funding for project expenses for the facility — money that will be provided in increments to Lakeside once it executes a construction contract and then the facility becomes operational. The county has roughly $17 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that can be used for sewer and water projects and grant funding from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. 

It also agreed to reimburse Lakeside $188,000 for engineering costs and could provide another $1 million for engineering pending approval of grant funding to the county through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Western Montana Conservation Commission. 

If Lakeside fails to obtain the proper permits or construct the facility it would have to pay back the funds to the county. 

The county has already paid about $600,000 to reserve 60,000 gallons of capacity with Lakeside. 

Following the commissioners meeting, Flowers expressed disappointment in the decision saying Citizens for a Better Flathead and the North Shore Water Alliance will continue to watch the process with scrutiny and expressing the need for transparency from government bodies. She said they also continue to question placing a septage facility in the “worst place possible.” 

LAST FALL the county purchased property in Lower Valley to develop the facility on the site itself, intending that treated septage from the facility would then be piped to the Lakeside sewer plant. 

Since then both parties have concluded that a “more efficient construction and operational model” for the plant is for the county to pass funding to Lakeside for the district to build, own and operate the plant, the interlocal agreement says.

“We started with a lot of options across the county in this process and we narrowed it down to this at this point,” Commissioner Randy Brodehl said. The county purchased the Lower Valley property, but has “chosen to go a different direction,” he noted. 

The plan for the 36.9 acres on Wiley Dike Road originally purchased for the facility remains undetermined. The property could be sold directly to Lakeside as another government entity or through a public sale, but that would come as a future decision by commissioners, county officials note. 

According to county figures, on any given day up to 40,000 gallons of septage waste needs to be pumped from septic tanks and treated.

The county is home to an estimated 30,000 septic tanks, which provide the primary treatment of wastewater before it discharges into a drain field, but some of the leftover matter, known as septage, needs to be removed from the septic tank about every three to five years.

Septic tanks that aren’t pumped can overflow and fail, creating an environmental impact.

Septage from the county is currently disposed of through land application, which includes injecting the untreated septage into the soil.

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.