While many obstacles still exist, Plains continues its efforts to update its wastewater treatment facility.
While Plains can brag it has one of the lowest sewer rates in Montana because there hasn’t been a significant price increase in more than five years, that will change in the future.
As the Clark Fork River meanders through town, river bank erosion brings it waters closer to the lagoons of the town’s waste treatment facility. This has been a known issue, however, and the only solutions have been band aid fixes to a problem bleeding much more profusely every year.
Within the last 20 years, the river has moved from 359 feet to less than 130 feet, with last year alone contributing a loss of near 50 feet. Though many options have been suggested, few are plausible, with every single one being vastly expensive and extremely time consuming, including doing nothing.
The first option that the town looked at would have been to put in sheet steel barriers to stiffen the bank and to prevent more erosion. This would be at the mere cost of $1.1 million. This option would not be a permanent solution, however, because these kinds of barriers can only be built so long, and rivers have a tendency to go around them anyways. During last year’s flood season, after a record snowpack melted profusely, the river pushed in over 47 feet towards the facility. The Army Core of Engineers came in and armored the bank in the spring of 2018. By now most, if not all of it, has been undercut and eroded away because of the force of the Clark Fork River.
Another option would be to try to divert the flow of the river, however because of the Amy Core of Engineers strict policies and the lack of anywhere to divert the flow in the first place, plus the astronomical cost of such an endeavor, that idea is simply impossible. Dredging was also not allowed, nor were spurs.
Thirdly there is the option of doing nothing. As the facility stands there are many updates required by law within the next five to seven years. One of these being sludge removal, which would cost around $160,000 to $320,000 depending on where the waste is moved. The cost will be less if it is closer, and more if it must be shipped out to somewhere such as Kalispell. The plant will also need to be updated with “polishers” for ammonia and phosphorus, which will have an estimated cost of $1 to $2 million. Not to mention, however, this cost would still be paid in vain to a facility doomed with eventual assault by the Clark Fork. Then there are the massive environmental and health hazards that will result from the river colliding with the waste treatment plant.
The final option also happens to be the best and the most expensive option. At an updated cost of $5.25 million the facility will need to be moved. In emergency funds for the entire state of Montana provided by the Treasure State Endowment Program only equal to about $500,000 in aid, and the town does not have enough funds to cover such a massive project alone.
At the moment the town, through possible funding through the increase of sewer, various grants and loans provided, as well as through government assistance the town now has access to over $1 million. There are also other grants the town has applied for, so there is potentially more that can be added.
One immediate issue, besides cost, is where to move the facility. Most of the land in the Plains valley is either under private ownership or floodplain. It has been suggested that the facility be moved to where the airport is now, however this is not an option either. Not only is the airport under federal funding and has a “Airport Influence Zone”: this is the restricted building space around the airport to prevent any danger to planes or buildings. The airport is also required for the hospital’s life flights, and access for fire teams. The latter is especially important due to Sanders County being a hotbed for fire activity.
Other building sites, across the railroad tracks, are promising however this could vastly increase the price of relocating the facility, due to permits of putting piping under an active railroad and the shear distance it would need to be moved and the cost of putting in that much piping. this could possibly double the already incredible cost. Of all possible locations on the cheaper side of the tracks there are about four possibilities being looked at that fall under all these guidelines.
Currently, Plains is looking to buy private land in areas where the sewer treatment plant can be relocated. They have, after much research and planning, cordoned off a swath of land that would be optimal for the relocation site. They investigated multiple options, attempting to decrease the final cost of such an endeavor. They even looked at the discharge process, which would have been either a new irrigation system or their current river discharge system.
They found that after the cost of getting new permits to use the new irrigation system, as well as the higher cost of requiring more property needed for such a system, the current method of discharge would have to be maintained. This was another limiting factor on where the site could be moved.
As Mayor Dan Rowan said “the property needed went from approximately 120 acres to just around 20.”
The town is looking to private landowners, living within the area, to to sell their land to the town, in return for a fair market value payment. This is not an easy thing for the town to ask and creeps up to the edge of violating personal freedom, however the town has little choice.
Unfortunately, the deadline to do something is unknown. It could be within 10 years, or it could be within less than two.
“If it was easy someone would have already fixed it,” Rowan said. “If anyone has a better idea, please let me know.”