SEELEY LAKE — Seeley Lake voters are deciding the fate of a multi-million dollar bond issue to pay for a solution to the town's serious on-going water quality issues.
Seeley Lake has been Missoula County's playground for generations -- a place to fish, cool off, or camp. But there's a growing environmental problem challenging water quality -- whether for recreation, business or residency.
Study after study has illustrated more nitrate contamination of groundwater which is tied directly to the septic systems, especially in the heart of town.
Many of the lots in Seeley are relatively small, some only one-third to one-half of an acre. That not only increases the density of the septic systems but is compounded by the fact that many systems were installed decades ago, long before nitrates were recognized as a serious health risk.
While most of the older septics do a fair job of removing bacteria and contaminants, health officials say they're no help with nitrates and the newer systems that do are increasingly expensive. That risk means some private Seeley Lake water wells can't be used.
All those smaller lots and septic systems, which are crowded along the lakeshore, are starting to impact surface water too, evidenced by the growing algae blooms not only on Seeley Lake but downstream in Salmon Lake and beyond. That poses a further threat to the area's recreation economy.
But the solution is expensive; $11.9 million for a new sewage treatment plant and $5 million for a collection system just for Phase 1 in the Seeley Lake Sewer District, with other phases projected later. It's also estimated that it would cost $227,000 a year for operations and maintenance.
The good news is that the sewer district has obtained $10.5 million in grants and $6.5 million in low-interest loans.
If voters approve the $4.9 million General Obligation Bond, the cost would be just over $23 a month for the treatment plant. The Revenue Bonds for the first phase of the collection system add $1.4 million, adding about $25 to the monthly bill for property owners.
The proposal is generating its share of controversy, with some complaining Seeley Lake simply can't afford the plan. But it could get a lot more expensive, and soon. Leaders of the sewer district are worried the community will lose access to all that grant money this spring. And that changes all of the math.
All of the voting for Tuesday's decision is being done by mail. There is a late registration period for qualified property owners with more info available from Missoula County.
Ballots will be collected at Seeley Lake High School until 8 p.m. on Tuesday and all ballots have to be received by the county either in Seeley Lake or Missoula by that evening.