Riverside Water & Sewer District’s Failing Treatment System

This September 2015 DEQ issued a Violation Letter to the Riverside Water & Sewer District because its old wastewater treatment system has completely failed and is directly discharging polluting wastewater into local groundwater adjacent the E Gallatin River without a permit. Doing so is a violation of Montana’s water protection laws.

Click here to read DEQ’s Notice of Violation Letter.

The Problem
The Riverside Subdivision, located just north of the E Gallatin River by the country club, was built in the early 1970s, and a wastewater treatment facility (WWTF) built shortly thereafter. As part of its responsibility for protecting water quality and community health, DEQ conducts routine inspections of wastewater treatment facilities. These audits are critically important; failing wastewater systems can discharge harmful levels of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus into local water resources, which in turn can contribute to bad algal blooms, fish kills, and even unsafe drinking water.

During its 2011 inspection of the Riverside WWTF DEQ found that the system was broken, and wasn’t in fact properly treating or disposing of wastewater. Instead, wastewater is leaking directly into local groundwater approximately 1/4 mile north of the E Gallatin River. Specifically, engineers estimate that approximately 11-16 million gallons of polluting nutrients and bacteria leaks into local groundwater every year!

Unpermitted discharges like that from Riverside contribute harmful pollutants that unnecessarily risk water quality in the E Gallatin River, a waterway that already suffers from unhealthy levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and E coli. The recovery – and future health – of the E Gallatin River depends on making sure that every sector – from small suburbs, to agriculture, to the upstream City of Bozeman – does their fair share to keep pollution out of our local waterways. In turn, keeping pollution out of our waterways starts with these types of decisionmaking processes, situations where sound science, common sense, and the law need to be followed!

Segue forward to September 2015 where the Riverside Water & Sewer District now has two options: (1) build an updated facility, which would treat pollution and protect local water resources; or (2) connect to the City of Bozeman’s WWTF, located only 1/4 mile away.

Pragmatically, the logical option would be for Riverside to connect to the City of Bozeman’s WWTF, located less than a mile away. That WWTF is one of the best wastewater treatment facilities in the state of Montana, and additionally possesses the capacity to take on the estimated volume of wastewater from Riverside. Ecologically, sending Riverside’s wastewater to an advanced WWTF is also good choice because it would stop existing, illegal discharges of pollution into local groundwater, thus improving local water quality.

Further, building a new WWTF – with the necessarily strict treatment levels – would be a heavy economic burden for the small water and sewer district. This is because any new facility will have to meet a high standard of treating wastewater to stringent standards, in part due to existing impairment in local waterways which are hydrologically connected to local groundwater, and in part due to strict standards applicable to “new” wastewater discharges.

Our Role

We believe that local water quality is best served by (a) eliminating the existing, illegal discharges of pollution to groundwater from Riverside’s broken WWTF, and (b) connecting to the proven, state-of-the-art treatment provided by the City of Bozeman’s WWTF. To support this decision we are sending the Riverside Water & Sewer District a letter urging them to connect to the City’s wastewater facility, as well as offer our support in terms of thinking “outside the box” about how such a contract could be written so as to be a “win-win” scenario for all parties: Riverside, the City of Bozeman, and local water.

Click here to read our letter to the Riverside Water & Sewer District.

This is a particularly sensitive issue since the Riverside community is so close to the E Gallatin River, where local groundwater is hydrologically connected to the river: any wastewater discharges to local groundwater essentially goes into the E Gallatin, a river that is already failing to meet its beneficial uses and is struggling to keep its nutrient, sediment, and E coli pollution levels down.

Technically speaking, we also support connecting to the City of Bozeman’s WWTF because the treatment standards there are some of the most stringent in the state. Heck, sampling data has shown that the effluent from the City of Bozeman’s WWTF is sometimes better than the quality of the receiving waterway (the E Gallatin). Given the more lenient legal standards for groundwater discharges, it is hard for us to believe that any new wastewater facility will do a good enough job of treating wastewater pollution when compared to the near-by City WWTF. When those facts are combined with the economic burden of building a new facility (likely shouldered by local ratepayers in part and in part paid for by grants), we believe scant financial resources are best allocated to the most efficient solution – connecting with the City of Bozeman’s WWTF.