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Septic Tanks and Sewage Treatment

Montana has experienced a ten percent increase in population since the 1990 census. This is resulting in an acceleration of the dispersal of the cities and towns into rural foothills where subdivisions and individual family residences are filling open land and flood planes. These developments and residences are not connected to any municipal sewage treatment facilities. Rather, each unit is installing their own septic system for individual use. These septic systems are polluting the ground water every time a toilet is flushed. Water from so many septic systems eventually finds its way into our streams.

Rivers have deteriorated because of sewage pollution, flooding, dams, silt buildup, and excessive water withdrawals. All are symptoms of urban development. Local county and municipal health departments should retain their authority over all septic systems and subdivisions within their jurisdictions because of the threat to public health. Currently this authority is retained by the State only. Intense growth pressure within Montana communities require local decision makers to have the tools to assure that water quality, public health, and quality of life are protected. Local officials are faced with the challenges of lessening impacts on underground aquifers, streams and rivers from septic tank discharges without the authority to implement the necessary changes. Local authority over the septic systems of individual residences and subdivisions is the best way to oversee this problem.

In the 1999 legislative session the Montana State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) attempted to weaken local control over septic systems. This effort failed when Montana counties spoke out against DEQs proposal, which was subsequently withdrawn. The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that local entities have the final say. It is important that local county and municipal health departments establish their authority over this important local health issue.

Billings & Laurel Area Well Map
Billings and Laurel

Missoula, Lolo, & Stevensville Area Well Map
Missoula, Lolo, & Stevensville area

Bozeman & Belgrade Area Well Map
Bozeman & Belgrade area

Ground Water Wells Installed Graph

Map Legend
Map Legend

Note about Maps

Sewage into Groundwater and Streams

The three maps -- Billings, Bozeman and MissouIa and related graphic -- illustrate individual wells drilled in their respective counties. Each small circle indicates a state recorded well. With each well comes an individual septic tank and drain field sewage system. Each sewage system comes with wastewater saturating the ground and seeping into the groundwater. Their individual seepage may invade adjacent wells and cause disease and ingestion of toxic substances.

Sewage pollution in the groundwater can flow into surface water, streams and other bodies of water, degrading beneficial uses such as drinking, swimming, fisheries and agricultural irrigation. The solution to this dilemma is for counties to stop issuing permits for individual sewage systems that do not connect to municipal sewage treatment plants. While this will require counties to form water and sewer districts in order to construct municipal sewage treatment plants, in the long run it will be less expensive to the taxpayer than cleaning up open waters and groundwater polluted by individual sewage systems. It would also help county commissioners in getting control of suburban sprawl into the county.


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