Cities Squeezed by
by Richard Hanners
Protecting the valley's water quality
Protecting Flathead Lake water quality is high on most people's list here in the Flathead, but how to do that while not putting the damper on economic growth is the multi-million dollar question.
Government regulators are only a few years away from setting a limit on how much nutrient pollution will be allowed into the lake - the "total maximum daily load" (TMDL) for nitrogen and phosphorus.
That limit won't change, even as population growth continues, so there will be a lot of pressure among groups to increase their share of the load.
According to a 2000 report, "point sources" - including sewage treatment plants for Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and other communities - accounted for about 1.4 percent of nitrogen loading in Flathead Lake. (Some more recent estimates are 3-4 percent.)
The remaining 98.6 percent came from "nonpoint sources" - soil erosion by Flathead County's 10,201 miles of roads and 62,781 acres of farm land, airborne dust from as far away as China, fertilizer runoff by farms, cemeteries, golf courses and residential properties, urban stormwater runoff, and the 22,500 septic systems scattered around the Flathead Valley. On top of that are hundreds of square miles of managed and unmanaged forest lands.
One way to look at it is as a pie that doesn't get any bigger, no matter how many people want a piece. And the Flathead's cities and towns get the smallest slivers of the pie, even as they spend the most per capita to address pollution. That's the TMDL problem.
Lawsuits and deadlines
Pressure to solve the TMDL problem comes from the courts. Last fall, conservation groups reached an agreement with state and federal agencies to delay establishing TMDLs for 664 pollutants in 28 watersheds in Montana until 2014.
The agreement stems from a 1997 lawsuit brought against the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality by the Friends of the Wild Swan and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
The plaintiffs argued that the EPA had identified more than 900 pollutants in Montana lakes, rivers and streams that made them too polluted or degraded to meet water quality standards.
In 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy gave EPA and DEQ until 2012 to establish TMDLs for specific pollutants and develop clean-up plans.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director Mike Garrity said the conservation groups were willing to extend the deadline until 2014 because the two agencies were using a more comprehensive watershed approach for clean-up plans rather than focusing on individual water bodies.
In addition to TMDLs, state water quality standards exist for individual rivers and streams that pose difficulties for some sewage treatment plants. In January, the EPA, which is responsible for enforcing the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, approved a plan authorized by the Montana Legislature to phase in stricter standards for these streams.
According to Kalispell public works director Bill Shaw, who was Columbia Falls city manager when the city recently upgraded its sewage treatment plant, the EPA recognized the difficulties cities face in meeting the stricter standards - the technology doesn't yet exist to ensure discharges are clean enough to meet the standards, and the cost to pay for such technology, if it existed, would be prohibitive.
As a result, both Whitefish, which discharges into the Whitefish River, and Kalispell, which discharges into Ashley Creek, face more challenges than Columbia Falls, which discharges into a very large body of water - the mainstem of the Flathead River. On top of that, Whitefish still uses sewage lagoons instead of mechanical treatment and is way behind the other two cities.
Columbia Falls, on the other hand, recently spent $4.1 million upgrading its sewage treatment plant, using sewer fees, plant investment fees, federal stimulus money and a 20-year low-interest state loan for $1.1 million. The work was completed last June, and the new bioreactor and ultraviolet treatment significantly reduces nitrogen and phosphorus levels.
According to a report by Judel Buls, a consulting engineer for AE2S, and Susie Turner, Kalispell's water resources manager, Columbia Falls discharged 45.7 pounds per day of nitrogen in 2010 when its permit allowed 37.1. The discharge level dropped to an estimated 20 pounds per day after the recent upgrade project.
That compares favorably to Whitefish's estimated 218 pounds per day in 2011. Whitefish, which uses outdated sewage lagoons rather than mechanical treatment, faces enormous costs to meet TMDL levels and stricter standards for the Whitefish River, which is considered an impaired water body.
Kalispell recently spent $21 million expanding its treatment plant. But with the economic recession dampening future growth, the city was left with excess treatment capacity and is currently in talks with Evergreen about treating the 182 million gallons of sewage its pipes collect.
Buls notes that TMDL levels for nitrogen have not yet been established for Flathead Lake, and nitrogen loading can be very inconsistent from year to year. Forest fires, heavy spring runoff and other nonpoint source variables make loading levels difficult to pinpoint, she said. But one thing is certain - the population of Flathead County is likely to continue growing.
Flathead County's population grew by 25 percent from 1990 to 2000 and 22 percent from 2000 to 2010. Once the TMDL limit is set, cities will face increasing difficulties keeping discharges under the limit while their population increases. Focusing efforts on point sources - the small slice of the TMDL pie - could cost cities and towns millions of dollars without addressing the greater source of nutrients, the nonpoint sources.
One solution Buls and others encourage is nutrient trading, especially if cities and towns can find projects that reduce nonpoint source pollution.
It could be cost effective for a city or town to pay half a million dollars to reduce erosion caused by roads or to reduce fertilizer runoff on agricultural land than to pay several million dollars to make small improvements to its sewage treatment plant.
The solution, then, could be a regional approach to a regional problem, Buls says.
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