Recent Study Confirms Contamination in Whitefish Lake

A water quality study at Whitefish Lake turns up contamination, including e-coli from human waste. The Whitefish Lake Institute conducted the study.

The Institute tested sites around the lake through last summer. In three spots Science and Education Director Lori Curtis says they confirmed E. coli with human DNA “and what we did in our report is we said, here are three areas that have known bacteria from humans,” Curtis said, “that means it’s definitely coming from human feces, and we identified areas that have a low, medium, and high risk for future contamination.”

Curtis said they identify as “high-risk” areas that are not hooked up to the city sewer system, and instead use septic systems. Septic Systems are designed to collect and neutralize the contamination in wastewater before it enters into ground or surface water. After going through a series of treatments the waste ends in a leach field. Septic leachate is the liquid remaining after wastewater drains through septic solids.

“When you use your water; any kind of garbage disposal, you run your water, you flush your toilet, all of that goes into your septic system. So does laundry water, so when a washer empties out, it goes into your septic system, and in that laundry water is something called optical brightening agents,” Curtis said.

These Optical Brightening Agents are one of the things the Institute tested for. Curtis says finding OBA’s in the water means somewhere, septic systems are not working.

One of the three areas where the Institute confirmed E. coli sits in a testing area off the northwest shore at Lazy Bay where there are a lot of septic systems and no city sewer. The Institute believes failing, older septic systems are behind the positive reading. The other two are at testing sites off shore of areas which are connected to the city sewer; at City Beach Bay, and Viking Creek both on the south end of the Lake. The report says a failure in the local infrastructure of the sewer system may be to blame, and waste from swimmers could have been disbursed by natural and boat currents.

“There are definitely some number of systems that are failing. Identifying individual systems would be a very… is another process beyond what we did. What we do know is that a large number of septic systems were put in in the 70’s and perhaps even earlier,” Curtis said.

The report says septic systems were built to function properly for up to 20-years prior to 1990. Since then septic systems started getting built to last 30-years or longer.

Despite these readings Curtis says she swam in the lake last summer, and will this summer; they’re not at a point where people should be avoiding the lake.

“You know, water bodies an interesting thing because it’s always moving; there’s currents, natural currents, there’s currents that are affected by boat movement,” Curtis said, “and so it’s not like going into a stagnant pond where everything is… you know, just sitting there waiting for you to collect it. It’s a generally safe lake.”

Curtis said this is a common problem, across the country. Curtis said previous studies were done on Whitefish Lake in the 19-80’s which also showed signs of septic “leachate” problems, “taking care of these small, problematic areas would be good for the overall health of the lake, and it’s really important for the economics of our community.”

“Imagine a lake that nobody wanted to swim in? What if everyone was afraid to have their kid jump into city beach? That’s not what we want. We want this to be an attractive place for both residents and visitors,” Curtis said.

The Whitefish Lake Institute is a non-profit organization that conducts research and provides scientific data. It was tasked with performing these tests by the Whitefish County Water District. Curtis says the Institute will meet with and discuss the report with the Whitefish City Council this spring. The Institute made a few recommendations. First, to educate the community about the issue, and secondly to look at changes to regulatory programs to protect the lake. It also identified opportunities for state and federal funding that may be able for upgrade programs.

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