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Group seeks amendment to Water Rights Protection Act

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | May 22, 2020 1:00 AM

With support from Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, a Lake County nonprofit recently submitted a letter to state leaders requesting an amendment to the draft of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act that would provide the Tribes with authorization to use a portion of their Trust Fund to improve the treatment of wastewater throughout the reservation.

The letter was signed by Kate Sheridan, Executive Director of the Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit focused on clean water and healthy ecosystems in the Flathead watershed. It was sent in late April to Gov. Steve Bullock and Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont. and Jon Tester, D-Mont.

The bipartisan Water Rights Protection Act essentially offers the skeleton for a settlement between the federal government and CSKT on water-rights claims. As part of the act, Congress would provide CSKT with $1.9 billion for damages and rehabilitation of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project - a Trust Fund for which the Tribes would develop a spending plan. And according to the letter from Sheridan, CSKT officials have expressed interest in allotting a portion of that settlement to addressing water quality issues in the Flathead Basin by improving wastewater treatment.

In order to do this, the letter asks a portion of the act be slightly amended to say the Tribes may “plan, design, construct, maintain, and replace community water distribution and wastewater treatment facilities including onsite septic systems on the reservation.” Language in the draft currently omits “including onsite septic systems.”

Issues surrounding outdated onsite septic systems have long-plagued both Lake and Flathead counties. Multiple entities including CSKT, the Flathead Lakers, Flathead Lake Biological Station, Whitefish Lake Institute, Flathead Basin Commission and county departments have researched the extent of these aging systems and their possible ramifications on water quality and human health for decades.

“This is a groundwater issue that impacts human and environmental health. As we put septic waste into the ground, it is treated naturally by bacteria and other things in the ground. But when septic systems get old, they essentially lose the ability to do that,” said Jeff Tuttle with the Flathead Lakers. “Tanks can crack, parts of the leach field get plugged up, wastewater is concentrated in smaller areas. These are all problems that occur with older, failing systems.”

More recent tallies show that while there are approximately 4,900 homes and businesses connected to community wastewater treatment systems, there about 12,400 using onsite wastewater treatment, or septic systems. Many of these are located on the sprawling Flathead Indian Reservation that stretches across about two-thirds of Lake County, including a large portion of the south end of Flathead Lake.

“The rural nature of the Flathead Indian Reservation and Lake County is exemplified by the reality that over 70% of the homes and businesses treat their wastewater onsite - mostly with small septic systems,” the letter states. And researchers estimate thousands of these onsite systems are over 50 years old, not up to modern design standards and/or are not effectively treating wastewater.

“This idea still exists, and I’d say it’s a true one, that the best thing is to have everybody hook up to community sewer,” said Steve Rosso, past president and current board member of the Flathead Lakers. “But this is not a reality for rural areas like we have in Lake County and elsewhere. We have to deal with this on-site wastewater treatment and there are a lot of challenges to that.”

Two of the biggest challenges have been getting private property owners on board with replacing their aging systems and securing funding incentives for them to do so. The cost of replacing an onsite sewer system varies, but estimates typically range from $15,000 to $30,000.

“Providing a funding mechanism to help homeowners replace failing septic systems is just as important - if not more - as funding community treatment facilities,” Sheridan wrote. “Protecting our surface and ground water from wastewater contamination requires investment in both community treatment facilities and onsite septic treatment systems.”

THE REQUEST for an amendment to the Water Rights Protection Act was a topic of discussion at the Flathead Basin Commission’s most recent meeting. In recent years, the group has shifted its priorities to focus on how residents, organizations, lawmakers and government officials can address failing and under-performing septic systems.

“While the state has a fairly robust regulatory system, there is currently a lack of ability to address the older, and potentially more problematic systems,” said Kate Wilson, Commission Administrator for the Flathead Basin Commission. “We have an Onsite Wastewater Treatment Committee looking at different approaches including regulatory, funding, incentives and outreach.”

While the commission and Flathead Lakers shared equal enthusiasm for the amendment and possible future funding outlet during the meeting, the parties ultimately determined more field data is needed to back up current databases. The partners have worked extensively with researchers, environmental health departments, geographic information systems departments and others to nail down the number of outdated onsite septic systems in Lake and Flathead counties. They found both areas have a fair amount of data on when permits for these systems were granted, but Lake County’s isn’t quite as comprehensive as Flathead County’s.

As one example, Flathead County data not only shows how many septic permits were granted more than 50 years ago, but also shows how many of those systems are located less than 1,000 feet from Flathead Lake’s shoreline. But Lake County’s data doesn’t get quite that specific.

Existing numbers show about 2,900 systems in Lake County are over 50 years old and another 1,900 or so are between 40 and 50 years old. However, information on how close those are to the lake - something that helps researchers determine which systems are higher priority for replacement - is not provided.

“What we do have is the total number of septic systems and when those were permitted. But we need to get a better handle on the extent of the problem so we can say ‘OK these are the focus systems moving forward because of x, y and z,” said Tuttle, who was also an environmental consultant for more than 30 years.

The commission voted to form a subcommittee that will be tasked with fine-tuning the concept and goals for the proposed field study, the exact research that will be performed and how it will be funded - all of which has yet to be determined. Rosso, who is also on the Lake County Planning Board and Board of Adjustments, emphasized that both the field study and the process of accessing some of CSKT’s fund are in the beginning stages.

He said if Congress decides to pass the Water Rights Protection Act, the $1.9 billion will be allocated to the Tribes a piece at a time over many years.

“So each time a chunk of money is provided, there may be money available for this kind of thing, but ultimately it’s up to the Tribes,” Rosso said. “We see this as a way to maybe get a toe in the door so we can later expand this effort and hopefully be an example for other areas.”

Rosso, Tuttle and Wilson all said it is high-time more attention is brought to onsite septic not only on the local level, but at the state and federal levels as well. Kalispell, Whitefish, Polson and other areas have worked over the last decade or so to establish community treatment plants - undertakings that have assumed the majority of wastewater funding dollars throughout the years. And while those plants are assets, the majority of rural households and businesses are still using onsite septic.

“You can see the evolution. We have established wastewater treatment plants so it’s time now to see what resources we can put to rural outdated systems. And we need a lot of people to come to the table for that,” Tuttle said. “It’s not just about science it’s about policy.”

Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com