After years of work, the Flathead Basin Commission released a map this spring identifying the highest potential risks from septic systems in the Flathead Basin. Many populated areas near bodies of water like Flathead Lake and Lake Mary Ronan were identified as “very high-risk,” meaning there is potential for septic systems to leak into the groundwater and, eventually, the surface water.
The commission had hoped the map would be a tool for planners and policymakers. Nutrient pollution is a leading cause of water impairment in the state, according to the Montana Environmental Information Center, and nutrients often get into the water via “nonpoint sources,” such as leaking septic systems or agricultural runoff, that accumulate into larger problems.
The FBC – initially formed by the Legislature in 1983 to help keep clean the water in the Flathead Basin – devoted a lot of attention to nonpoint source pollution.
Now, as part of Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief initiative, the FBC is no more, combined instead with the Upper Colombia Conservation Commission, or UC3. The Western Montana Conservation Commission will replace the two groups that were dedicated to different problems in different watersheds. WMCC will extend its focus to six watersheds in western Montana.
In the Upper Columbia River Basin’s case, the former commission there accomplished its main objective, ridding the state of invasive mussels. But in the Flathead Basin, some are worried its needs are going to lose priority when combined with a larger area.
For that reason, Jim Elser was not in favor of combining the commissions.
In the Flathead Basin, the main focuses were curtailing nutrient pollution and aquatic invasive species, said Elser, the director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station.
Since Flathead Lake bolsters the state economy – homes on the lake adding $12 to $17 million in property taxes, according to a 2021 study – it’s a very “lake-focused” basin, Elser said. One reason he agreed to be on the new commission was to make sure he has an “opportunity to call attention to the Flathead and its challenges and importance.”
Flathead Lake is known for its pristine water quality. Kate Sheridan, executive director of the water quality advocacy group the Flathead Lakers, said the biggest threat to the lake, other than something like an oil spill from the railway, is contamination from septic systems. Sheridan said headway was being made on that problem, and progress is going to need to continue as people keep moving to northwest Montana.
“We just don’t want to lose focus on the Flathead because we feel that this area is incredibly valued both ecologically and economically to Montana,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan said the new commission bringing on more watersheds brings their individual needs and concerns. She brought up the Clark Fork River Basin – a designated Superfund site included in the WMCC’s purview – and how that compares to Flathead Lake, which doesn’t have such considerable issues. She said she hopes the focus on Flathead Lake won’t diminish, although she’s optimistic about the way the new commission is taking shape.
Aquatic invasive species, like zebra, quagga and dreissenid mussels, were the main focus of the former UC3. Such invasive species were anticipated to have a negative economic impact on Montana – one study estimated a loss of $230 million – if they took hold in the state’s rivers and lakes.
After the first identification of dreissenid mussels in the Tiber Reservoir in 2016 – about 50 miles east of Shelby – there has been no physical evidence of mussels in Montana since 2017, said Phil Matson, head of the water quality and invasive species program at the Flathead Lake Biological Station and former UC3 member.
Every year boats pass through inspection stations across the state with living or dead mussels attached, Matson said, but there’s been no evidence of the invasive species in water samples.
But Matson, who has been nominated by the UC3 to serve on the new WMCC, said boat inspection records show that mussels could be coming back in full force.
“The problem’s not over,” Matson said. “These boats are coming from all over the place, and those are the main threats.”
Despite the success curbing invasive species in the state, during the last meeting of the UC3, one identified downside of the commission was that it covered too big of an area and that its resources were spread too thin.
Mark Bostrom, administrator of the Conservation and Resource Development Division at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the biggest hurdle now is trying to figure out how to handle an even bigger area with many issues that continue to demand attention.
“That’s the challenge, trying to do a consolidation on a bigger area and not grow government,” Bostrom said.
Bostrom, a former member of the FBC, said he’s excited about the new WMCC. Working with a former colleague on the UC3, they often asked each other, “Why do we even have these two commissions?”
Mike Koopal was one of the researchers who developed the septic risk map and is a former FBC member.
Koopal said the map overlays physical risk — things like how nutrients from septic systems can move through the soil and how far the residue from septic systems is to ground and surface water — with septic permit data from Flathead County, which included the age of each system.
What the map shows is that there are more than 30,000 septic systems in Flathead County and roughly a third of them are older than 30 years, Koopal said. The average lifespan for an appropriately functioning septic system is 25 to 30 years.
“It’s an issue that’s only going to grow in scope and size,” Koopal said. “We will have more septic on the landscape as more and more people move to Montana. And at the same time, the existing septics on the landscape are aging.”
Koopal said the new commission has a great opportunity to expand the map.
From an administrative perspective, Casey Lewis said combining the two commissions simplifies many things — projects, budgets and all the overlap in between. Lewis will be the new executive director for WMCC, a position she previously held at both the UC3 and the FBC.
Lewis is excited about the new commission and she sees a possibility to take the FBC’s mission and expand it west of the Continental Divide. She said the WMCC won’t lose track of issues in the Flathead.
“I anticipate septic systems and septic leachate to be a topic we continue to work on, and, ideally, we will expand the septic risk map to all of western Montana,” Lewis said in an email.
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