Toilet water and other woes

  Dear HCN,

I used to live in the subdivision below Susan Ewing's in Montana's Gallatin Valley (HCN, 5/10/99). As a geologist with experience in groundwater consulting, I became involved in our neighborhood's concerns about the impacts on our wells of yet another proposed subdivision in the area. While Montana's intermontane valleys host abundant groundwater supplies in alluvial aquifers, the benchlands have very limited groundwater. Also, steep gradients and coarse rock and gravel on these benches make poor soil for septic tank drain fields. Studies indicated that in 1993 some wells were already contaminated by nitrates above EPA drinking water standards. Nitrates come from lawn fertilizer, which few homeowners used on their native grasses, manure as from feedlots, of which there were none in the area, or from human sewage.

We on the lower bench were drinking our uphill neighbors' toilet water. Another 100 septic tanks looked like a prescription for a serious public health problem, or considerable expense to the existing homeowners to redrill their wells (at the going rate of $20/foot) or add vigorous testing and treatment devices to their water supplies.

Incongruously, these benchland subdivisions overlook the municipal sewage treatment plant, lying closer to it than homes in Bozeman that pay for this service. Septic systems were never meant to be congregated by the hundreds on alluvial soils. Just as our attitudes about open sewers have changed from indifference to disgust, it is my hope that we will come to realize that congregations of septic tanks are equally repulsive and unacceptable.

I suppose one could argue, as Dan Flores has in your "beautiful ranchette" issue, that we shouldn't be trying to "freeze" rural open space anyway, because that space was created by "an agrocapitalist pattern of land consolidation," and that this consolidation "subverted the original democratic hopes for the Mountain West."

Maybe there are ungodly corporate farms and ranches threatening our democracy in the Bitterroot Valley, but I haven't seen them in the Gallatin Valley. The folks I know who farm and ranch are hard-working people raising our food and trying to keep their land long enough for their children and grandchildren to grow up. Corporate ranching may or may not be what we want, but to justify fouling aquifers and disrupting wildlife by implying ranchetteering is the more democratic lifestyle is offensive. I doubt ranchetteers love democracy more than the rest of us.

Mr. Flores is right in one respect; we've always thought everyone else was spoiling Montana. I'm from Montana. My family has lived in Gallatin County for over 100 years. If anyone deserves a ranchette, it's me, I reminded my husband as we flew over subdivisions west of Kalispell on a trip to see family in the Flathead Valley. Like Ms. Ewing, I feel a strong connection to the land and I want to live a rural lifestyle. My husband said, "I think there are too many people sprawling out and ruining the valley and I don't want to be a part of that."

I didn't want to admit it, but he's right. A person either talks about their convictions or they live them. My sympathies lie with Ms. Ewing, Mr. Flores, myself and all the others who long to live close to the natural world. But no justification can make up for the fact that rural subdivisions are hard on the land and if you buy one you are perpetuating the problem, no matter how good a person you may be or how simply you live.

I don't know what the answers may be, but I know managed growth is working here in Oregon. I can pick vegetables for my dinner at any one of numerous produce farms within minutes of leaving my house. Portland's urban growth boundary prohibits uncontrolled development of farm and forest land, while allowing for the growth of over 400,000 people in the next two decades. We in the West need to cultivate the mind-set and the political will to institute growth and land-management measures for the benefit of all. Because the problem isn't too many people, as Ms. Ewing claims, but too few people putting the good of the land and community ahead of their personal desires.

Shelly Whitman

Hillsboro, Oregon
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