WEST YELLOWSTONE — When a town has twice as many hotel rooms as residents, it can run into a unique set of issues.
West Yellowstone, currently hidden under multiple feet of snow in southern Montana on the border of Yellowstone National Park, is fueled by the millions of tourists who come from all over the world each year to visit the park.
While the heavy flow of tourism keeps the town afloat, it’s a double-edged sword. The small town demands big-town infrastructure, but its wastewater treatment plant is often overworked and overloaded, an issue that has seeped into multiple corners of the town and added to its housing woes.
In the off-season — roughly October to May — West Yellowstone is home to about 1,200 people. That number surges to 5,000 in the summer, when as many as 10,000 visitors pass through in a day, according to Peggy Russell, the town’s finance clerk.
And those thousands of people need to go to the bathroom.
During peak park visitation days, the town’s main pump station, which handles most of that sewage, can receive a million gallons a day — more than twice the amount it pumps during the winter.
In early April, when the park was closed, the pump station handled only about 280,000 gallons daily, town deputy superintendent Jon Brown said.
“The treatment plant has to be designed for the tourist season,” said the town’s consulting engineer, Dave Noel. “The rest of the year it’s running great. It’s the tourist season we really have to worry about.”
Asked if he’s worried the town will exceed permitted levels of nitrogen discharge this coming summer, potentially contaminating the underground aquifer, Noel said, “Oh, absolutely. Yes.”
“We’re not allowing that to happen,” Brown said.
The town has “sometimes” exceeded the nitrogen limits put in place by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, but not enough to be harmful, Noel said.
To fix the problem, the town plans to transition from a lagoon system — which consists of pools northwest of town that treat wastewater — to a mechanical plant more common in Montana’s bigger towns.
In order to accommodate the overtaxed wastewater system, the town council last year imposed a sewer hook-up moratorium, which in practice means nearly no new buildings can be constructed.
And with no significant amount of new housing being built, the town is struggling to hire vital workers, town manager Dan Walker explained. West Yellowstone has a “serious” teacher shortage, needs more public works positions filled, and has had two 911-dispatcher positions open for over a year, he added.
People could, in theory, live in nearby towns, but that has issues of its own.
“You can’t make $23 an hour and live an hour away,” Walker said.
Residents who do live in town are also feeling the effects of a wastewater system that’s working overtime. Residents’ sewer bills have increased from $15 in 2016 to what will be $30.32 in July of this year, Russell said.
It’s been clear for a few years that the sewage system was reaching the limits of its capacity, and the pandemic made the problem even more acute.
Yellowstone National Park hit record visitation numbers in 2021 with close to five million people, as tourists embraced more interstate travel and outdoor recreation following lockdowns. The west entrance to the park, which is located in West Yellowstone, is typically the most popular entrance for visitors.
So not only were more people than ever visiting the park, more people than ever were using the toilets in West Yellowstone.
“I think [the pandemic] exacerbated it,” Walker said.
In the town’s pursuit to upgrade the treatment plant, it’s having to navigate a real estate roadblock.
Before the town can start construction on the new plant — estimated by Noel’s engineering firm to come with a $33 million price tag — it needs to renegotiate a lease with the Montana Department of Transportation.
The current wastewater treatment plant, where the new plant will also be sited, is on Yellowstone Airport property owned by the state. According to Walker and West Yellowstone Mayor Travis Watt, the current lease contains a clause that allows the state to terminate that lease agreement if the airport needs the land.
Because the lease stipulates that the land can be taken back at any point, city officials explained, they worry that West Yellowstone will struggle to fund the pricey project.
“The termination clause is what’s killing us, because nobody is going to loan the town of West Yellowstone $33 million with a termination clause [in the lease],” Watt said.
His frustration is evident.
“To be honest, it’s been stupid. We’re so ticked off about it,” Watt added.
But according to Walker and Montana Department of Transportation attorney Valerie Wilson, after years of negotiations the two sides are within days of finalizing a new lease agreement. Wilson said the new lease will have a less onerous termination clause.
HOUSING HELP ON THE WAY?
Between the building moratorium and the sewage treatment lease negotiations, the town’s officials are counting on the passage of House Bill 430 in the Montana Legislature.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, who represents West Yellowstone, would allow local governments to increase taxes on short-term rentals by 0.25%, with the revenue funding programs that pay landlords to rent their units long-term.
If successful, the law would, in theory, create more housing available to local residents without increasing sewer hook-ups with new construction.
In 2016, the town purchased 80 acres on the edge of downtown to develop more housing. Now, the land sits empty, awaiting increased sewer capacity.
“Until they decide what they’re going to build on the 80 acres, there’s not many places to build anyway,” said Shaun Junglen, a construction worker who was taking his lunch break at the Buffalo Bar.
Junglen, who lives in nearby Island Park, Idaho, was working on a remodel in West Yellowstone that already has sewer hook-ups.
West Yellowstone isn’t the only tourism-fueled town in the region facing sewer issues.
Just over the Idaho border, Island Park is moving away from a lagoon-based system to a mechanical plant because of its own population swings in the summer months.
The winter months see roughly 30,000 to 40,000 gallons of sewer water on a daily basis, according to Noel, who is also working with Island Park. That volume climbs to 450,000 to 500,000 gallons in the summer, a more than 1,000% increase.
Back in West Yellowstone, as lease negotiations continue, tens of millions of dollars need to be found to build the new plant, the sewer hook-up moratorium remains, and summer is fast approach without an immediate solution in sight.
“I just sort of feel helpless,” Walker said. “I don’t know what to do.”
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