July 7, 2022
Columbia Falls Planning Board
Columbia Falls City Council
c/o City Clerk
130 6th Street West,
Columbia Falls, MT 59912
Columbia Falls Planning Board and the Columbia Falls City Council,
I write today as a board member and Flathead-area representative for the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. We represent nearly 3,000 Montanans who hunt and fish and care deeply about conserving the quality of Montana’s wild public lands, waters and wildlife.
Montana has been discovered. People are moving here in droves and our population is growing faster than we can accommodate. We understand the need for additional housing. As more people move here, there will be more development, without question. That said, we strongly encourage the Planning Board and City Council to think big-picture and long-term when approving new developments. Good planning now will pay dividends in the future, and keep the Columbia Falls area a desirable destination and home.
The proposed River Highlands development demands careful consideration and planning to preserve the character of Columbia Falls, what we love about the “Gateway to Glacier.” As this project goes through the approval process, it’s critical that the city of Columbia Falls prevents the local environment, the Flathead River, and our current residents from forcibly absorbing the external costs of the proposed high-density development.
Our goals are not mutually exclusive. Housing developments can be approved and built while requiring developers to adhere to rules that will ensure the protection of the local environment, river, and current citizens. Taking these proactive steps now is key.
The River Highlands developer is proposing to drill sewer and water lines under the Flathead River just south of the Highway 2 bridge to hook into the city’s utility system. While this option is preferred to a high-density septic system on the river’s edge, running sewage pipes under the river still is a great risk. The potential for those lines to leak or break is real, especially during spring runoff, and would cause major impacts to the water quality and cause extensive damage to the fishery, which includes threatened bull trout.
What is the process in the event of a catastrophic sewage leak during spring runoff? Fixing a leak or break in this sewage line and conducting the reclamation downstream would cost millions of dollars. Will the developer or the citizens of Columbia Falls - or all residents of Montana - be on the hook for that cost? Consistent monitoring, inspection and maintenance is a must to prevent a catastrophic failure. What do those services cost and who will pay for them?
These are just a small set of very important questions and considerations that must be addressed prior to the approval of the River Highlands development.
The city of Columbia Falls must consider long-term risks to ensure that this development, and others which are sure to come, employs the best technology and the highest quality process and standards to prevent catastrophic damage to the river. And we expect the city to outline ways to shield our city and state residents from being forced to absorb the negative external costs that are possible from these sorts of risky developments.
Thank you for your careful consideration,
Aaron Agosto, Bigfork, MT
Flathead Valley Chapter Leader
Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
Image courtesy of Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon