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DEQ investigates possible wastewater leak at Holland Lake

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| September 20, 2023 10:00 AM

The wastewater system serving Holland Lake Lodge and a nearby campground may be leaking more than it should and polluting water on U.S. Forest Service land — but required test results may not be available until November.

Holland Lake Lodge operates a resort in the Flathead National Forest with a special use permit from the Forest Service, and a controversial expansion of the resort is in the works.

A wastewater treatment system on Forest Service land serves the lodge and the campground at the edge of Holland Lake, a clear and popular body of water in the Swan Valley.

The Forest Service holds the sewer permit.

Last month, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said it was requesting additional information from the Forest Service partly in response to the state agency’s investigation into a complaint the wastewater lagoons were leaking.

Save Holland Lake, a group that formed to fight the expansion and advocate for a clean lake, suspects leakage because it said data show less effluent, or treated liquid, from the lagoons being sprayed on the forest since 2003 despite an increase in use. Said Save Holland Lake spokesperson Bill Lombardi: “This s— doesn’t add up.”

The DEQ said a study of the leak is required prior to any expansion, and it issued a warning to the federal agency. A private company from Utah, POWDR, controls the lodge and plans to resubmit an expansion proposal for the resort.

“A lagoon leaking in excess of the allowed rate, or land application at a greater than agronomic rates (more effluent sprinkled on the forest than allowed), could be considered a discharge to state waters without a permit,” the DEQ said in its letter to the Forest Service.

Generally, when a toilet flushes at the lodge, a pump sends the waste uphill to a couple of septic tanks near the lagoons, according to the wastewater permit. Then, waste runs into the ponds for treatment, and eventually, the effluent is sprayed onto a patch of forest for disposal.

The lagoons also receive waste from toilets at the campgrounds, a host pad, and an RV dump station, according to the permit.

In its letter to the Forest Service, the DEQ requested the water study by Sept. 17 in order to “determine any next steps needed for compliance in a timely manner.”

The Forest Service agreed with the testing, but not the timeline, according to its response to the DEQ — and Save Holland Lake alleges that delay may affect test results.

In a Sept. 1 letter to the DEQ, the Forest Service said it plans to conduct a leakage test “utilizing the method suggested in your letter,” but it also said it plans to accomplish that request, one of six it listed from the DEQ, by Nov. 15.

This week, Save Holland Lake member David Roberts said the delay would put testing in the midst of an inappropriate season. Roberts, also an engineer, said testing for leaks should take place in July or August, “when rainfall is minimal and the ground is dry enough to exclude significant runoff.”

“The Forest Service’s request for an extension in completing the water balance test is merely the latest episode in their continuing effort to ignore and avoid addressing this potentially serious threat to water quality, human health, and the ecological integrity of a highly sensitive lake and watershed,” wrote Roberts in a letter this week to the DEQ.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has designated Holland Lake and Holland Creek as critical habitat for bull trout, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, Roberts noted in his letter.

In an email, the DEQ said it is working with the Forest Service, has approved the timeline, and will ensure the environment is protected. It also said it’s requesting additional information in response to the complaint and a request to allow additional connections to the sewage system.

“Leakage testing will need to meet minimum design standards in order to be accepted by DEQ,” the agency said in an email. “DEQ has approved a request from the Forest Service to extend the timeline for performing the leakage study and will continue to work with the Forest Service to address these issues and ensure that wastewater treatment at Holland Lake is protective of human health and the environment.”

The DEQ’s assessment of the effect of the timing on test results was not immediately available late Tuesday. The Forest Service did not comment on the timing of testing or request for extension.

In an email, POWDR pointed to conservation measures it plans to use at the lodge but did not specifically discuss wastewater treatment.

Last year, the Forest Service tapped the brakes on the expansion of Holland Lake Lodge after the public raised opposition and legal questions. The validity of the special use permit also came into question because control of the lodge transferred to POWDR.

The Forest Service announced the expansion proposal last September, and members of the public criticized the Forest Service’s decision to keep the idea under wraps for roughly 18 months while working “hand in hand” with POWDR behind the scenes.

At the time, the Forest Service characterized the work as collaborative — it said it must work “hand in hand” with its partners.

POWDR, which bills itself as an “adventure life company,” quietly took majority control of the lodge in October 2021. Last November, the Forest Service asked for a “reset” of the project, and POWDR has said it intends to resubmit a similar expansion proposal in the future.

Save Holland Lake estimates the expansion plan would roughly triple the size of the lodge and increase wastewater up to six times; a Forest Service email obtained by Save Holland Lake in a records request estimates a five-fold increase in guests alone.

Missoula County Commissioners earlier said the expansion in overnight capacity and season extension translated to an approximate increase from 11,340 user days per year to 46,980 user days per year for overnight guests alone.

The earlier proposal from POWDR would increase the boundary of the special use permit to include the wastewater treatment system and make POWDR responsible for the system, Roberts said. He said it leaked in 1999, it’s likely leaking now, and Save Holland Lake wants to be sure water in the area remains clean.

(He said if testing was done since 1999, the records are not yet available.)

“It’s going to leak again,” Roberts said. “And it’s probably in one of the worst places you could have to expand in a pristine watershed.”

The Forest Service already is aware of a stench around the campground. In a 2021 email Save Holland Lake obtained in the records request, a Forest Service employee discussed the “dramatic increase in anticipated load from the lodge.”

“The Forest (sic) is likely aware that the stink from the current setup is already common in parts of the campground — can’t imagine that it will get any better under the new plans,” said the email.

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education.