Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Federal funds catalyst for improvements at Evergreen Water and Sewer District

Daily Inter Lake | November 19, 2023 12:00 AM

The Evergreen Water and Sewer District is in the midst of a more than $11 million infrastructure upgrade that aims to replace outdated systems while preparing the district for the future.

“It’s massive,” Cindy Murray, the district’s general manager, said of the suite of projects set to be completed by the end of 2025.

With a service area of about 8 square miles, the district serves a population of approximately 8,500. It is the largest combined water and sewer district in the state. 

Grant funding for the projects split between the sewer and water systems came from the state and Flathead County as the result of the American Rescue Plan Act approved by Congress in 2021. The district provided matching dollars for the grants. 

Without the funding, the timeline for the projects would have increased and likely caused an increase in service rates. 

“We would have had to spread the projects out over a much longer period,” Murray said. “We would have had to look at other financing options borrowing money, but it all comes down to raising rates — it definitely would be part of it.” 

The need for upgrading the system had become apparent as the district was unable to secure some replacement parts. 

One of the upgrades at a $1.2 million cost was to modernize the computer controls that operate and record data on the water and sewer systems. 

“If we had to spread those projects out over a much larger period of time then that would have put our system reliability in a more compromised position,” Murray said. “So this whole expedited time schedule is to everybody’s benefit. We probably couldn’t have taken all of this on because it’s really hard to get all these projects done. But it’s a great thing for our customers that we are getting this completed.” 

As a standalone, nonprofit government entity, the district has about $30 million in assets and a $2 million operating budget. It is governed by a seven-member elected board.

It has 11 full-time employees and recently brought on a full-time engineer to handle its increase in infrastructure projects. 

The water system has been serving the Evergreen community since 1965 through wells and storage tanks. The district has about 3,600 water customers. 

Sewer was added to the district in 1994 as the largest wastewater infrastructure project in the state and now serves about 2,200 customers. The sewer system includes septic tanks and wastewater treated by Kalispell’s wastewater treatment facility. 

Murray routinely refers to the district as “The Little Engine that Could.” She says the district is chugging its way up the track to the top of the mountain to complete its goals for improvements and planning for the future. 

IN ADDITION to the software system, other projects have included improvements to three sewer lift stations estimated at a combined $4.9 million. The upgrades are meant to ensure the stations can handle any emergency downtime that might occur in the sewer system. 

The district’s water tanks that provide 2.6 million gallons of storage were renovated at a cost of $2 million. One of the tanks was fully renovated in 2022 to remove lead paint from the inside and out. 

The district has 11 water wells and two more are projected to be operational in 2025. The district has invested $2 million into its wells system. 

One of the main focuses regarding the wells has been to develop a new well in the system so the district no longer relies on a well located near a state Superfund site that resulted from past industrial businesses. While the site has been cleaned up and testing by the state Department of Environmental Quality has found no contaminants in the water, its use has been a worry for district staff. 

“The well relocation is a wonderful story about being proactive in managing the security of your water supply,” Murray said. “The state has studied the site determining it’s safe, but we have made a decision that it is in the best interest of the safety of our water supply to move it.”

Murray gets emotional talking about the well relocation project, because she says the district staff care about making sure the entire system is safe for its customers. 

“The ARPA money changed everything,” she said. “It’s important — that’s why we’re here doing this because we care about the people we serve and we want to do the best for them.” 

THOUGH IT'S nearing the completion of major system upgrades, the district doesn’t plan to stop its work. 

Work on strategic plans for its water and sewer systems are expected to help the district prioritize spending for future projects.

The sewer plan is also expected to explore alternatives for wastewater treatment. The district’s agreement with the city caps the amount of wastewater allowed and the service area. 

Murray said that as the area beyond the current sewer boundary grows it becomes necessary to determine how those properties will be served, even if it’s not Evergreen that provides service.

“We want to make sure we have something that is sustainable, where growth can be sustainable, and that we stand for environmental protection,” Murray said.

The district will be looking to pursue federal funding for future projects. It’s one of the reasons an engineer was brought on board. 

“The ARPA funding is really the tip of the iceberg,” Murray said. “There’s a lot of federal money out there for public water and sewer projects. And it's our responsibility to our ratepayers to pursue this money to use for projects that need to be done to continue providing reliable and cost-effective service.”

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or  

    One of two water storage tanks owned by the Evergreen Water and Sewer District that underwent a $2 million renovation. (Heidi Desch/Daily Inter Lake)