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Rising from the effluent

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Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), expects the recently approved $787 billion federal stimulus package to funnel money toward wastewater treatment projects in Montana. The DEQ currently has a program in place to help communities develop sewers and the surge in funding could make some plans that were previously cost-prohibitive feasible.

In Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood, where historic sewer expansion schemes have suffered from resistance to new taxes, the stimulus may prove a godsend. Opper, a former Rattlesnake resident, thinks the city could tap new federal funding to service the valley. “There will be money available if a project is pretty much ready to go,” he says.

The last wholesale attempt to connect the Rattlesnake died in 2006. Since then, individual septic failures and the expense of replacing system components on lots too small to properly drain the discharge have spurred some neighborhood residents to petition for extending the sewer line again.

“That’s kind of the overlooked issue up there,” says Missoula County public health department director Peter Nielsen. “People try to make it about one thing or the other, but the thing that really drives it is when people have to replace their seepage pits. There isn’t much room and some of them have already been replaced two or three times.”

From an environmental perspective, the problem with high-density septic areas like the Rattlesnake is the nitrates they release into the water table. In Missoula, opposition to sewer fees by residents spawned the argument that the nitrates in Rattlesnake Creek came from natural or agricultural sources. The detection of pharmaceuticals in the water by a UM researcher has since cast doubt upon that theory.

Missoula Public Works director Steve King reports the city has already begun working with the DEQ to rustle up the funding for sewer expansion citywide.

“The problem has never really gone away, but it’s had some renewed energy,” King says.

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