Seeley Lake's septic system problem

Septic System Requirements
Posted at 10:08 AM, Mar 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-21 12:08:44-04

MISSOULA — The residents of Seeley Lake often say a lack of housing as the main issue behind their town's struggles.

This lack of housing leads to increased cost of living, lack of labor and having to call in people from out of town for basic repairs.

One thing that emerged when talking to the residents is that the sewer system — moreover the lack thereof — complicates new building immensely.
Seeley Lake mainly consists of structures that have their own septic system. A septic system often consists of a tank, a pump and then a drainage field for all of the gray water to seep out to.

The term drainage field is a little misleading too. It should maybe be called a drainage yard, as that’s where these empty out to — the yard of the house.

Most of the town has septic systems for two main reasons. First, there is no sewer system and second, once they’re in, that’s it. There is no monthly utility fee, no hook-up fee, and little maintenance that has to be performed over the years in operation.

There is a large issue with all these septic systems, however. They are adding nitrate — a carcinogen that is also known to cause birth defects — into the area’s groundwater.

“There is no solution really in place to remove nitrate from the sewage before it enters the ground," Missoula Public Health Environmental Health Manager, Jeanna Miller explains.

"What that causes the health department to have to do is to evaluate septic permit applications differently than in areas where there is no contamination.”

The permits are known to have a long and lengthy process to acquire. In fact, on the application page, it states “BEFORE APPLYING, please note that this may NOT be a quick process.”

Residents pointed to the permitting process as one of the reasons that new building has been hampered, saying it's complicated and overly expensive.

It's also expensive, with the cost just to submit the application being $300. That doesn’t include all of the surveying and testing that is also necessary to apply.

But with nitrate levels being as high as they are, what other option is there?

There was a solution that was proposed several years ago — a public sewer system that would eliminate almost all nitrate contamination, but voters struck the measure down.

Currently, Seeley Lake is left in the difficult position of having a strenuous permitting system to go through in order to manage the wastewater of new developments. Additionally, the upkeep of existing septic systems requires a permit if major replacements are needed.

And even if they attain the permit, there are still many hurdles in the way.

Putting in a septic system is not cheap, with the price coming to $10,000 to $30,000 just for the most basic of residential systems. It's also important to note that the vast majority of residential systems have no way to manage their nitrate output.

That price skyrockets if a new development wants to accommodate more than one family, having to put in a much more complicated septic system that treats the wastewater before it's sent to the drainage field. That treatment reduces the nitrate levels by just over half, to about 25 milligrams per liter.

Rovero’s Hardware is one of just two places in town that contains one of these advanced septic systems.

Overall, the septic system problem in Seeley Lake is more than just a roadblock to building new structures. It is a “serious health concern” to the community, per Missoula Public Health.

Miller stated that a community-centered solution is the only way to go forward, something that the community feels is best for itself.

Whether that is a central sewer system or continuing to update septic systems; between building issues and health risks, a solution is needed.