Flathead lake

POLSON — An effort to study a low-profile pollution problem in northwest Montana’s lakes has hit headwinds.

Over the summer, the Flathead Basin Commission prepared a bill to study “septic leachate,” the human waste that leaks from lakeside septic tanks into the water. The legislation, drafted by Whitefish Lake Institute Executive Director Mike Koopal and former Montana state legislator Ed Lieser, would examine the factors that keep homeowners from maintaining their septic systems or hooking up to sewers, with a focus on Flathead, Whitefish and Echo Lakes.

It’s already proven a tough sell.

At the Flathead Basin Commission’s Wednesday meeting, Lieser and Koopal told members that the bill drew concerns when they presented it to the legislative Water Policy Interim Committee in July.

“Unfortunately, the committee did not act on it at that meeting,'' Lieser said.

He followed up with the Committee’s vice chair, Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman. “His read on the committee was that it probably wasn’t going to pass if it did come to a vote,” due to concerns held by a Flathead-area legislator.

Of the committee’s eight members, only Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, is from Flathead County. He declined to comment on the bill, saying he needed to review it further. But Koopal and Lieser opted to leave the interim committee, and instead seek a different route to the Legislature.

“We came to the conclusion that we were not going to ask the vice chair to bring it to a vote and we would work with other legislators in the Flathead Basin to see if they might support a study bill,” Lieser said.

“I think they could pull it off,” Brown said. “It’s just going to take some work and coalition-building” with the Flathead’s legislators.

The Commissioners then turned to other ways they could address the problem.

Ultimately, keeping septic tanks’ contents out of swimming and fishing lakes requires that they be properly maintained, or replaced with sewer systems. The latter option can prove costly — and unpopular.

Over the summer, Lieser noted that a recent, failed effort to link the Lion Mountain Neighborhood near Whitefish to the city’s sewer system would have cost residents an additional $150 per month, and led to city annexation and property taxes.

One of the Basin Commission’s members, Flathead County Commissioner Gary Krueger, reminded his colleagues of that outcome.

“You can study that to death, and you’re going to get creamed when you go out with that to the public and say, ‘You have to do this.’ Whitefish has found that out, I think … The very people that are talking to us about preserving the water quality, they only want to preserve the water quality so long as it does not affect them.”

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He predicted that efforts to address the problem would fall hardest on low-income residents without political muscle.

“There isn’t a county commissioner in Flathead County that’ll touch that with a 10-foot pole because they’re going to get creamed,” Krueger said.

The Whitefish Lake Institute’s Koopal replied by emphasizing the bill’s goal of assessing the barriers to septic improvements. “We need to find that matrix that could provide local groups with the template for working on this issue. That’s really the thrust behind the subject of the study bill is to inform local groups what tools are in the toolbox.”

Meanwhile, Jim Simpson with the Lake County Conservation District voiced concern about the issue, but questioned the bill’s political appeal.

“Is it reasonable for us to assume we can get a majority of Flathead Basin legislators supporting that?” he asked.

“I think it’s worth a try,” said Lieser, speaking to the Commission via speakerphone.

The Commissioners adopted a motion to continue promoting the bill and to seek the support of a Flathead Basin legislator, with Simpson and Krueger dissenting.

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