Terry Huetter stepped to the fence behind the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and noted the lagoons collecting sewage from the neighborhood’s 36 trailers.
The lagoons sit at the bottom of a draw that once served as a tributary to La Valle Creek – itself a pathway to the Clark Fork River. But the draw was divided long ago into pits and channels collecting what's flushed and drained from the occupied homes.
Huetter called the lagoons ancient technology and acknowledged their impact on the environment, not to mention the pride of the families who live here and see them every day.
“We don’t want to live with that,” said Huetter. “When I moved here, I had no idea it’s how this stuff was handled. It gets into the aquifer and everything.”
The environmental impacts of the unlined, open sewage lagoons and questions of public safety have placed Buena Vista high on the priority list for a new treatment system, and Missoula County is eager to see the work get done.
Commissioners have applied for three grants to connect the neighborhood along Highway 10 West to city services. The work would likely begin in 2016 if the money comes through.
“Part of the project is to replace this with a lift station and pump it to the city’s collection system,” said Todd Kuxhaus, the project engineer with Great West Engineering. “After the flows are diverted, there’ll be some sewage sludge in the bottom of the lagoons. That would be removed, dried and disposed of at the landfill.”
Commissioners toured the mobile home park Wednesday evening, with Huetter and Kuxhaus offering a crash course on the proposed project and what it means to the neighborhood.
The 36 mobile homes within the park are each connected to an 8-inch main. The main ends at a diverter that sends the sewage into one of two lagoons.
As proposed, a lift station would replace the diverter and send the flows to a sewer line at nearby Training Drive. The line would then carry effluent to the main sewer line on Airport Road.
In the project’s second phase, the lagoons would be abandoned and the sludge removed. The pits would be reclaimed and restored to a condition that more closely resembles the draw’s natural state.
“The city has tentatively agreed to take the connection,” said Kuxhaus. “They would adopt the lift station and maintain it, if all goes as planned.”
Combined, the three grants are valued at roughly $435,000, but portions of the project remain uncertain. The city has not taken official action to adopt the lift station and allow the park to connect without annexation. Part of the funding also depends on the actions of the 2015 Legislature.
But residents of Buena Vista remain optimistic and have proven resilient in recent years. In 2013, the small collection of mobile home owners united to purchase the trailer court, making it a resident-owned community by taking on $940,000 in debt.
While the interest rate runs at 6 percent and increased the neighborhood’s fees, the move promised the residents more stability and put the future of their property into their own hands.
“We all own it together and so far, we’ve kept it floating, at least,” said Huetter, a Buena Vista resident and president of the community co-op. “It’s breaking new ground for sure. I would never in a million years have thought we could pull off such a feat.”
But purchasing the park as a co-op also required connecting to city services, which remains the neighborhood’s next hurdle. If the project pans out, it would allow the park to add 12 new lots, and that would help the co-op pay down its debt.
It would also add to the community’s pride of ownership.
“Everyone should take ownership in their own property, and we’re hopefully on the road to cleaning it up,” Huetter said. “In a few years, hopefully, it won’t look like what it does now.”
Charlie Schneider remains one of Buena Vista’s longest tenants. He moved into the park 30 years ago and stays busy maintaining the grounds – along with the diverter and its stream of waste.
But he likes the direction things are going and is eager to see a modern sanitation project reach his neighborhood.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “It’s getting cleaned up.”