bonner sewer planning area boundary
Courtesy HDR

WEST RIVERSIDE – Few communities in the state are more densely populated than this one six miles east of Missoula.

And, according to those who’ve studied it, all the others that come close have their own community sewer systems.

The drain fields and cesspools of West Riverside and the surrounding unincorporated neighborhoods of Bonner, Milltown, Piltzville and Pine Grove have been in place for, in some cases, well over 100 years. While there have been no major public health crises because of it, leaders of the greater Bonner community are itching for a fix.

“It does stunt growth,” said Steve Nelson, who with Mike Boehme of Bonner Property Development, have rebuilt the former Bonner lumber mill site into a thriving multi-enterprise concern in the past five years. “People are not able to develop or do anything with their properties because of the rules for sewers we have now.”

“That area is undergoing development pressure. You’ve got all the activity at the mill site and Kettlehouse building a brewery,” said Craig Caprara. “I know Town Pump wants to do some things with their property and they’re limited with regard to what they can do. Their wastewater and sewer disposal system is kind of at capacity, I think.”

Caprara is project manager for HDR, the engineering firm selected by Missoula County last spring to head up a preliminary engineering report to determine the feasibility of, and the community will to, establish a public wastewater facility.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Bonner School, HDR, the Bonner Milltown Community Council and Missoula County Public Works will hold the second public meeting since the engineers came on board. The first was in June. This one will be used to update the community, listen to what others have to say, and go over four options.

One is the do nothing alternative that’s common to all public works studies. Another is to connect the Bonner area to Missoula’s wastewater treatment facility, a system that already reaches out to East Missoula and the Canyon River golf community. A third is to build a single treatment plant on one side or the other of the Blackfoot River. The fourth is to establish several satellite treatment plants throughout the area, likely with individual sewer districts in each community.

Relative costs to homeowners and businesses will drive the discussion, and Caprara said HDR was hoping to have some preliminary cost estimates by the September meeting.

“We’re just not quite there yet,” he said. “When we started working out there, we realized the county doesn’t have up-to-date planning and zoning for that area. It’s fairly easy to come up with the existing population, but to come up with future growth numbers means we need to make assumptions with regards to land use.”

His team has done that, he said, “but we want to get a little buy-in from the community before we go any further.”

The size and price tag of a chosen treatment plant option will be determined by whether single homes or multi-family homes will drive growth, and by considerations such as whether open space will be taken into account.

Undershoot your estimate and the rising costs come back to bite you when you get into the grant application and design stages, Caprara said. Overshoot the cost per customer and “you kill the whole thing.”

He hopes after hearing feedback on Tuesday and beyond, the numbers will be more meaningful when the last public meeting is held on Nov. 15. HDR's contract runs until mid-December, by which time Caprara said HDR will be ready to take its final recommendation to the county.

“What you hear on the street is people think the county is running it down their throats, which clearly it’s not. This is just a feasibility study and there’s a no-action option,” said Karl Uhlig, an area resident and water resource specialist for WGM Group.

Uhlig chaired the Bonner Milltown Community Council, the county's local advisory board, when the project started percolating a couple of years ago. He’s off the council but has remained involved on its land-use committee that includes Nelson, Boehm, Steve Fisher and chairman Bruce Troutwine. It was Troutwine who broached the subject of a sewage treatment solution to the council in the first place.

In a letter sent last month to property owners in the planning area, the community council said HDR and county project managers identified three probable issues with the current system: effects on water quality; the impediment of residential and commercial property improvement or development, and the inadequate room for a legal replacement if a current on-site system fails. A separation of 100 feet is now required between a drain field and drinking water well.

Some residents are suspicious of hooking into Missoula’s system. Annexation into the city is sure to follow, they say. East Missoula residents voted in 2000 to tax themselves to connect to city sewer but with the agreement that consideration of annexation would be deferred until 2024 or retirement of the project bonds, whichever comes first.

Nelson pointed to Lolo, which has built its own wastewater treatment facility, and Seeley Lake, which is in the process.

“Those are community systems but the county kind of manages them and these people form their own (sewer) districts,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing for everybody.”

The Bonner mill site itself has issues, he added.

“We have a sewage treatment facility, but it’s so antiquated it probably couldn’t be used,” Nelson said.

The mill owners have a permit to discharge effluent into the Blackfoot River, but “that’s a nonstarter,” he said.

“Nobody wants to do that. We don’t want that. I think we’re going to end up with those satellite systems, but it’ll be four or five years before something gets done.”

Still, all four options remain on the table and public input remains key to the process, the community council said last week.

“There is no existing proposal to construct a waste treatment (plant) of any kind,” the council said in a reminder of Tuesday's meeting. “The meeting is only to explore options for treatment, which include a ‘do nothing’ option. No facility can be constructed without a vote of approval from landowners.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian