Gallatin County's waste water woes
NICK WOLCOTT/CHRONICLE Jeff Dyksterhouse of the Amsterdam-Churchill Sewer District stands in front of their waste water treatment ponds on Friday. The system is leaking 85,000 to 90,000 gallons of partially treated waste water into the underlying aquifer daily.

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Beneath the ground in some of Gallatin County's smallest towns and communities, old washing machines and automobiles have sat, filling with raw sewage day after day.

Decades ago, when houses were fewer across the open Montana landscapes, retired Chevys and Maytags became economical septic tanks. But over time, towns grew, people moved in, and regulations increased.

The septic systems of yesterday would now be condemned, but in places like Gallatin Gateway, some are still operating - protected by a grandfather law that allows them to skirt current regulations until they're changed or replaced.

In rural areas, aging and noncompliant wastewater systems are common predicaments. They can have grave effects on communities, and solutions often come with harsh price tags.

In Gateway, residents rely on individual septic systems that are failing and could threaten water quality. Growth there has been stunted in part because of the community's septic issues, and some fear it could bring the small town's demise. In Amsterdam-Churchill, millions of gallons of wastewater are leaking into the ground each year. Its residents will likely foot the million-dollar bill to fix it.

Underground problems like these have long afflicted Montana's less populous places, in particular. They're common issues throughout the West, and most communities in need are looking to the same source for help: grants.

But there are only so many of those state and federal gifts, leaving some communities with nowhere to turn but local pockets. These are the places dotted between the big cities, places that are beloved - but in some cases, just struggling to keep on.

Gateway's septic dilemma

In the late 1800s, what is now the town of Gallatin Gateway was known as Salesville, an agricultural town with houses clustered close together.

But in the 1920s, a bus line began carrying tourists from Salesville to Yellowstone National Park. An inn was built in the town to accommodate travelers - drawing attention to the area - and eventually Salesville adopted the inn's name as its own: Gallatin Gateway.

More people came to town, and it grew outward from the original homes of Salesville.

Today, the area has been called a "service community" to the more wealthy towns of Gallatin County. Its residents tend to be workers who build houses, make gravel for other towns' roads, or clean houses in Big Sky.

While on the surface the town has grown, changed and been renamed, it's also developed below ground. Wells have been drilled and septic systems have been installed, and early on many of them were undocumented. Besides the visible sewer and water caps, they're unseen remnants of the town's history - but their legacy could lead the community into decay.

The town does not have centralized wastewater treatment, and according to research conducted by Great West Engineering, most of its individual septic systems are cesspools, seepage pits, or metal septic tanks with drainfields that have either failed or will likely fail in the near future.

One by one, septic systems have needed repairs or replacement in Gateway, and that's meant they've had to come up to today's codes.

Regulations on septic systems require that they be 100 feet away from water wells. But in Gateway - particularly in the concentrated blocks that were once the original Salesville - they were often placed much too close together. So to fix their systems, residents have needed more land or a more complex system. Either way, solutions are sure to be complicated and expensive.

Tim Roark, the environmental health director for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said some options for replacing systems in Gateway include an elevated sand mound and an advanced treatment system. Those can run from $15,000 to more than $30,000.

The median household income in Gateway is $29,000.

Roark tells those who can't afford to fix their system to look into low interest loans and grants.

But financing a replacement or repair isn't the only problem when a system fails. At that point, the sewage could potentially contaminate the nearby Gallatin River, wells or groundwater.

"All those cause us concern as health officials," Roark said.

The already cramped septic systems in Gateway also mean there's not much room for new systems to be added. Matt Donnelly, general manager of the Gallatin Gateway County Water and Sewer District, said that's stinted growth in the small town.

"There's not a building moratorium in the area, but there's no way to put in a new sewer system," he said. "The community just decays. There's no incentive to improve property, or for new people to come."

In Gateway, buildings that burned down decades ago still haven't been replaced, and their cement foundations sit alone on the land. Empty lots are left undeveloped. Donnelly thought hard to remember the town's last new building - a fire station that was replaced four or five years ago.

The truth is, Donnelly's afraid the town will die.

His wife, Toni Donnelly, is from Gateway and owns Stacey's Bar, a landmark that's been around since 1937. Donnelly has come to love the community since meeting and marrying Toni, and he doesn't want to see it disappear.

Donnelly paused for a moment during an interview last week, thinking about why people love the unincorporated community that sits about nine miles southwest of Bozeman.

"In one word?" he asked. "Independence."

Finding a solution

Whatever the reason, the town is beloved, and a handful of dedicated volunteers have come together to form the town's water and sewer district board of directors and work toward improving Gateway's infrastructure.

The solution to the town's problem is clear: It needs a central wastewater system. However, that would cost $4.3 million - putting Gateway in desperate need of state and federal grants.

Just applying for the grants, though, required hefty, inches-thick reports created by engineers, work that all together cost $45,000. To help come up with the cash, community members held a fundraiser in 2009 dubbed Sewer Fest, which enabled them to hire Great West Engineering.

"It is an eye-opener to realize that a group of volunteers have to go to that level of effort to get a chance at infrastructure," said Rich Fillbach, of Great West Engineering.

Those volunteers are people like Earl Wortman, a fifth-generation Gateway resident. The house he lives in now has been passed down for the last four generations, but it's plagued with an old, non-compliant septic system. He wants to see it, and the whole town's septic issues, taken care of.

"It's about time that it gets fixed," he said. "I have to look to the future. My kids will have the place some day, and I don't want them to have to worry about it."

The district's grant applications are in, and now it's waiting time. Even if the community got all the grants it applied for, it would still be on the hook for $1 million, Donnelly said. But that would be feasible, and design and construction could begin on a central wastewater system.

The thought alone seemed to make Donnelly giddy. He admitted the process has been an emotional rollercoaster. The community applied for five grants, and the district will likely find out if it will receive them all by late fall.

Sewer issues at Amsterdam-Churchill

About 19 miles northwest of Gallatin Gateway, the small community of Amsterdam-Churchill is having its own sewer problems.

It has a central wastewater treatment system, but every day that system leaks about 85,000 to 90,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater "directly into the underlying aquifer," according to engineering reports from DOWL HKM.

Each year, that adds up to approximately 31 to 32.8 million gallons of leaking wastewater.

But it wasn't until 2005 that the problem was realized.

Amsterdam-Churchill is a small Dutch community, with windmills decorating its neighborhoods in honor of that culture - its retirement home was even built in the shape of a windmill. The town's first residents came to Montana for the promise of work growing barley for the Manhattan Malting Company. That community has held on, and Hank Dyksterhouse, a longtime resident of the area, estimates that 40 to 50 percent of its population is still Dutch.

Dyksterhouse and his family moved from Holland to Churchill when he was 13. It was 1948, and at that time there were only 13 houses on Churchill, Dyksterhouse said. But growth came to the small community.

By the 1970s, Dyksterhouse could see the town had an infrastructure problem. Everybody was using individual septic systems, and those systems were beginning to overcrowd the area. So, he decided it was time the town got a central system. The whole process took about five years and was completed in 1978.

It wasn't until nearly 30 years later that the Department of Environmental Quality discovered something was amiss.

Ideally, the town's sewer system was supposed to work like this: It has a facultative lagoon, which is essentially three ponds. When a toilet is flushed, the raw waste goes to the first pond, which is lined with plastic. There, it's naturally broken down by bacteria, exposure to sunlight, and other elements. Much of the solid waste drops to the bottom of the pond and the remaining wastewater is piped to the second pond, which is lined with clay. There, the natural treatment continues.

By that point, the wastewater becomes fully treated and is piped into the third pond, which is also clay-lined. When the system was set up, the plan was to pipe the water that filled the third pond onto a nearby farmer's field.

But that pond never filled up - the wastewater that should have been there was just missing.

At first, there likely weren't enough people in Churchill to create the waste to fill that pond. But as the town grew and the third pond still stayed dry, people started to wonder.

In 2005, the DEQ looked into it. They found that the system was leaking large amounts of wastewater, and ordered that the problem be fixed.

Now, the community has deadlines set before it. By Oct. 31, it must submit plans to DEQ for how the system will be repaired. And by Dec. 31, the construction must be completed.

The community hired DOWL HKM to help it apply for grants and create reports like those that Amsterdam-Churchill needed. And as the company has looked into the problem, it still has questions. It's unclear which pond the sewage is leaking from, and so the gallons of leaking wastewater could be raw, partially treated or fully treated.

No one knows why there's a leak, but some guess the clay liners in the last two ponds may have cracked when dry. And while several wells have been tested and no contamination has shown up, the effects of the leakage are also unclear.

But the town has several options that would solve the problem: hooking up to Manhattan's system or rebuilding a system similar to the one in place now. Either way, it will cost about $3.7 million.

Amsterdam-Churchill is applying for grants, but unlike Gallatin Gateway, its chances of getting them aren't great. That's because grant recipients are prioritized by need, and Amsterdam-Churchill has a higher median household income of $40,000.

The community has filed for a two-year extension on the deadlines from DEQ, and if it's granted, it'll try again for state and federal money. Otherwise, the town will have to take out a loan and pay for it with rate increases.

And in the meantime, wastewater will continue leaking.

Gallatin County communities not alone

These are communities that are loved, but face big infrastructure problems - and they're not the only ones in the county.

The Three Forks central wastewater treatment system is 30 years old and has to be upgraded to meet new DEQ requirements. The Logan community is having similar problems as Gateway, with its individual septic systems old and out of compliance. And the Four Corners Sewer and Water District has been struggling to buy the central system its residents use, which is owned by the private company Utility Solutions.

As rural communities, they have fewer resources to draw from when septic issues arise. There are fewer pockets available to pay for repairs, and people are not often paid to watch over their community's infrastructure. But some do it anyway - like Hank Dyksterhouse, who spearheaded his town's first central system and has served as a volunteer on its sewer board for 39 years.

For him, it seems his hometown is worth it.

"I have no desire to move any place," he said. "It's been good here. Life's been good to us."

Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com.

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