Down the drain 

Sewer upgrade raises sticky issues

Renovations could triple Missoulians' monthly bills

Sewage dominates talk at Missoula's city hall these days. With a planned $15 million in upgrades, dramatic increases in fees and rates, and a growth management proposal tying sewer expansions to development, it's no surprise that so many discussions reside in the gutter.

And while the upgrades to Missoula's Wastewater Treatment Facility will make the Clark Fork a cleaner river, officials are likely to hear an outcry from residents when higher rates go into effect to help foot the bill-possibly as early as next year. At the same time, the idea of tying Missoula's ever-ornery growth management proposal to the 20-year plan the city has for building new sewer lines could be a dicey one.

Since the mid-1980s, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Montana have come down on Missoula, saying that algae levels in the Clark Fork were too high. While the pollution is caused in part by septic tanks leaking into the aquifer, according to wastewater Superintendent Tim Hunter, the largest source is excessive nutrient discharge from the wastewater treatment plant. The main nutrient culprits: nitrogen and phosphorus.

The fix is a complicated process that has to do with organisms and oxygen levels, but the upshot is that the city needs larger tanks and a bevy of new pipes and pumps, carrying a price tag of upwards of $15 million. While Missoula is still in the middle of a rate study, monthly residential rates are projected to double-if not triple.

Hunter is quick to point out, however, that Missoula's sewer rates are the lowest in the state.

Currently, Hunter says, the average resident in Missoula pays just under seven bucks a month; in places like Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena, residents pay anywhere from $13 to $21.

"We've operated the facility economically. We've been able to keep it running, but we haven't been able to make any improvements," says Hunter.

While rate increases will help pay for the pollution-related upgrades over the next three to five years, there are other problems on the horizon. The plant, which is running at near capacity, is slated for an expansion six to 10 years from now. That expansion is likely to be paid for, at least in part, by development or hook up fees that could increase as much as tenfold. According to Hunter, the current fee for a new user to hook up to city sewer is $350.

"In many communities it's in the thousands of dollars," he says. Preliminary numbers peg new user hook up fees in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, putting Missoula squarely in league with other cities.

While Hunter admits he is much more comfortable in his role as scientist than messing with a highly politically charged issue like growth management, he is worried that the latest growth management proposal-which would encourage development in areas where there are already existing sewers lines or where sewer will be hooked up within five years-will entice builders to go outside the boundary set up in the 20-year Wastewater Treatment Facility Plan.

"It may create a kind of disincentive to hook up to the sewer system," says Hunter. "I do think that if we don't have a sure way to address the proliferation of new septic tanks [outside of the boundary] that there might be some disincentive."

While Hunter's concern is echoed to some degree by Geoff Smith, a scientist with the Clark Fork Coalition, it's a problem that in his opinion has solutions. "I think that at that point it becomes the responsibility of those who are reviewing new septic tank proposals. Maybe we need to be a little tougher on those proposals."

Since economics will ultimately drive developers to build in one particular place over another, Smith says, the best way to discourage developers from going outside of the urban growth area is through the use of impact fees that would force them to pay the full cost of a development.

According to Mayor Mike Kadas, those who choose to build within the sewer boundary will be allowed to construct in greater densities, instead the one home per acre requirement outside of the boundary.

Kadas also points out that there will be other economic incentives to build within the urban growth area. "While developers may have to pay $3,000, they may receive $3,000 to $5,000 in sewer lines and infrastructure that the city will provide if they build [within the urban growth area]."

Cindy Klette, director of the Office of Planning and Grants, which came up with the concept of an urban growth area last month after the Planning Board flushed an earlier idea of a designated urban service area around the city, says Missoula has little choice in the matter. "The reason we're tying the urban growth area to the availability of wastewater treatment is because it's absolutely necessary for urban development."

Wastewater flowing

Missoula plans to spend more than $15 million for renovations to the city's wastewater treatment plant to cut down on the nutrients it discharges to the Clark Fork River. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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