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Soiling the nest

Why West Valley’s water is the Flathead’s problem


The squat pumper truck drives across the muddy field, turns around and stops. Someone hops out of its passenger side, goes to the back of the truck’s big red tank, manipulates a large spigot and gets back in. Seconds later the truck starts back across the field, this time excreting a thick, brown spout of liquid from its hind end. The liquid has probably been pumped from someone’s full septic tank elsewhere in the Flathead. It’s being spread across this field, formerly a pasture, to compost.

This field in West Valley, an unincorporated community northwest of Kalispell, is one of several locally concentrated sources of nitrate, a pollutant found in high enough concentrations in some local wells that the water is undrinkable, and toxic to children. It’s a pollutant that may, via the West Valley, threaten the water supply of many other Flathead residents.

Tammy Graham, whose well at her small bronze foundry is the most contaminated in the West Valley, gives a tour of other neighborhood nitrate sources.

There are the fields where Meadow Gold dumps waste from its dairy production, cattle yards, and large fields that formerly grew mint, a crop that requires high concentrations of nitrate fertilizer.

Residents suspect and science confirms that when you take all these nitrate sources together, throw in residents’ septic tanks, and account for the unique geology of the area, you’ve got problems.

The problem is contaminated water, caused by nitrate pollution and abetted by an alluvial fan—a thick layer of boulders and gravel running about 150 feet below West Valley. Generally speaking, most of the Flathead sits closer to a layer of clay covering the valley’s deep aquifer. The West Valley’s alluvial layer, laid down by an ancient river, serves as a shallow aquifer into which many West Valley residents have drilled wells.

John LaFave is a hydrogeologist for the Montana Ground-Water Assess-ment Program who has studied the West Valley’s geology.

About 10 years ago, when LaFave was doing work testing Flathead Valley wells, he came across a cluster in the West Valley that showed elevated, but not dangerous, nitrate levels. In 2002 he tested the water again and found that contamination had increased, surpassing Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) allowable level of 10 milligrams per liter. LaFave notified the DEQ, which studied the West Valley’s water itself last summer. When the DEQ tested Tammy Graham’s water, it was found to contain 50 milligrams per liter of nitrate, enough to kill a small child within a few weeks. Many other wells contained nitrate concentrations approaching Graham’s.

The DEQ will continue studying the West Valley this summer, to better understand where the nitrates are coming from, and where they are going.

Since discovering the contamination, some West Valley residents, like Graham, have gotten used to buying drinking water. Others—including many who have built homes in recent years—have drilled deeper, into the larger valley-wide aquifer 150 feet beneath the West Valley. It’s this deep aquifer that the city of Kalispell and many Flathead wells tap into.

“It’s a world-class aquifer,” LaFave says, noting its purity. “We wouldn’t want to screw it up.”

But there’s reason to believe the West Valley has begun contaminating it with nitrates.

This winter, the DEQ discovered one new well in the West Valley in which water from the deep aquifer showed higher than normal—although not yet dangerous—levels of nitrate.

According to LaFave, it’s highly unlikely that those nitrates were already present in the deep aquifer. Instead, he believes they were carried down by the new well when it punched a hole through the alluvial fan and into the clay layer that protects the deep aquifer.

“The first thought that came to my mind is [the new well] dragged it down,” LaFave says.

In a January report on West Valley water, the DEQ notes that new wells may “connect the aquifers.”

The murky meaning of this information becomes clearer when you watch septic waste being dumped a stone’s throw from several newer homes.

Ernie Freshe owns one of the homes next to the septic dumps. For years the trucks dumped within feet of his backyard fence, he says, but the dumping station was moved about 100 yards away a few years ago.

Despite the adjacent septic field, Freshe says he isn’t worried about his water. He and his neighbors, he says, have all drilled down to the deep aquifer.

Freshe and his neighbors are among the many who have moved to the largely bucolic West Valley in the last decade. All over, newer homes jut from what was once rolling farmland. Just down the road from Graham’s bronze foundry, a development of eight homes is taking shape. The DEQ notes there are now 83 wells in the West Valley that access the deep aquifer.

In places where there’s potential to contaminate aquifers, LaFave says, it’s common to require protective measures be taken with new well drilling.

That hasn’t been done in the West Valley, and just whose responsibility it is to prevent contamination is unclear, according to Laura Alvey, of the Montana DEQ’s Ground Water Remediation Division.

LaFave acknowledges the lack of a responsible agency, and notes that DEQ is too underfunded to help much anyway. But he points out that Flathead County itself rejected a chance take responsibility for its water in May 2001, when it voted 7–1 against the creation of a water quality district, which counties such as Gallatin, Missoula and Silver Bow have already established.

At the time, voters seemed unwilling to create more taxes and regulations for themselves, and even now it’s not clear if such a district would have had the regulatory teeth to fix the West Valley’s problems.

What is clear is that the West Valley’s water will remain contaminated, and a threat to Flathead Valley water, for the foreseeable future. Or at least until someone takes responsibility for doing something about it.

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