Whitefish Takes Steps to Address Septic Contamination in the Lake

The city of Whitefish takes steps to tackle the problem of septic contamination leaking into Whitefish Lake. In March test results from several water samples collected around the lake came out positive for E. coli from human waste.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld says they hope to be proactive in dealing with contamination, “this is certainly an issue that the city’s been aware of for the last 20 years starting with some of the studies in the 1980’s by Yellow Bay that indicated that septic leachate was at the time, and would continue to be a major threat to water quality in Whitefish Lake,” Muhlfeld said.

He’s referring to a study conducted by the Flathead Lake Biological Station based in Yellow Bay.

Science and Education Director for the Institute Lori Curtis says the Institute put together recommendations for the city of Whitefish including forming a Community Wastewater Management Program that would have education and outreach, and a regulatory element. She says another recommendation is that the Program offer incentives to help landowners reduce the risk.

“We looked at an umbrella policy, kind of a short-term incentive based program where folks would have the ability to voluntarily connect to sewer, where it’s available, to upgrade to a communal system, or to individually upgrade their systems,” Curtis said they also looked at a long-term property-conveyance system, “properties that were sold after a particular date, and with septic systems that were installed prior to 1990 when some upgrades were made – to have responsibility for upgrading their systems at the time of the sale.”

Muhlfeld said he’s working with the city attorney to draft a resolution to form the Committee.

“For that task force to be effective it’s going to need to have representation from not only folks that live on the lake, but County residents, the Flathead County Health Department, the Flathead County Commissioners, City Council, the Whitefish Lake Institute, and others that are obviously interested in this issue,” Muhlfeld said.

The Institute confirmed E. coli in an area off the northwest shore at Lazy Bay where there are a lot of septic systems and no city sewer. It 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. Curtis says people can still swim in the lake, the problem is not lake-wide, and is still in its early stages.

“There are many case studies around the nation of other water bodies that have faced this issue and have waited too long, and have had to work a lot harder and spend a lot more money to clean it up. So, I think we’re at a good place to be working on it now,” Curtis said.

Solutions like offering incentives to upgrade septic systems, hook up to city sewer, or annexation all would cost money. Curtis says the cost estimate for an individual lot owner to upgrade a typical septic system would run $12 – $18,000. She says they’ve identified some funding sources through national organizations. The city is also looking at a Nutrient Trading Program where the city would purchase credits by mitigating other nutrient sources of contamination in the watershed.

“If you are stopping a certain amount of nutrients of getting into the lake at all, or getting into the system, you then don’t have to treat them, so you’re taking pressure off of the whole water system, and you’re taking pressure off the wastewater treatment plant. So, instead of making upgrades at the plant level, you’re saying we’re reducing the amount of nutrients that are even getting there,” Curtis said.

Muhlfeld said the first step is to put together the task force which is scheduled to go before the city council for a vote in July.

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