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Elk City water system revamp hits a hitch

— To govern or not to govern: that is the question about a current plan to modernize the sewer system.

It’s not yet clear when Elk City Water and Sewer Association (ECWSA) members will make their choice.

Boise-based engineering firm Mountain Waterworks has drawn up a plan for how to bring the sewer system up to spec. The engineers have recommended the association turn itself into a district – a step that would bring the ECWSA recognition under state law. The change also could win the local group recognition by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grant-makers.

Mountain Waterworks presented the project design to the Idaho County Commission last year, and in a hearing last October, the commission supported the association’s pursuit of Idaho Commerce Department block grant funding. Last month, Commerce informed the commission the project will not get grant funding this spring.

The association may continue to pursue grant funding and the future of the project hinges on whether grant money can be found.

“If we cannot secure sufficient grant money to fund the project, the association does not have the resources to fund it itself,” Elk City Water and Sewer Association president Mike Howzen said Monday, March 6.

To qualify for Idaho Commerce Department community development grants, any given project has to have its funding lined up – and as of Feb. 3, the Elk City wastewater project still needed to firm up commitments of $3.3 million out of the $4 million total cost.

That’s according to a Feb. 3 letter from commerce department manager Dennis Porter to Idaho County Commission chairman Skip Brandt.

Walter Steed, the grant administrator who is working with the ECWSA to move the project through the grant process, said the next steps involve resubmitting an application for one federal grant and working out a timeline as to how the association might also pursue a separate grant through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The problem with that is, the corps will not make grants to water and sewer associations,” Steed told the Free Press last week. “They only do that for formally formed districts.”

Mountain Waterworks brought project design details to the commission last May and Steed’s firm filed the formal grant application last November. When the ECWSA heard more about the possibility of forming a district at a meeting of association members last month, some Elk City area residents and association members leaned against it.

Some non-member residents, such as Jon Menough, have expressed concern that districts have power under the law to assess fees and to compel payment from those they serve, such as by putting liens on property. Howzen said some association members are also opposed to the governmental approach.

Not all the differences are philosophical.

Association membership has trended lower in recent years, and individualized water treatment systems have become marketable. The cost of individualized treatment units ranges from $2,500 to $13,000, with installed costs ranging from $11,000 to $25,000, Menough said Wednesday, March 1.

If that sounds expensive, Menough suggested, “compare that to spending $4 million to set up service for 100.”

Individualized setups may not be practical throughout the town, due to site-specific factors such as soil depth.

Howzen noted that while disagreements were expressed during the public meeting last month, he said there was “good exchange” and that the meeting was productive.

If it goes forward as designed, the sewer project would repair or replace most of the pipes and manholes in Elk City, which have been deteriorating since the 1960s, when the engineers have said the system was installed. Water system regulations have tightened since then and the association is obligated to bring the sewer system into compliance by 2022.

The obligation follows from a permit, known as an NPDES permit, which the Environmental Protection Agency issued in 2015, and which can be read online at

The EPA permit mandates changes be made to the existing system in order to control ammonia and heat discharge into Elk Creek, which flows into the South Fork Clearwater River.

As part of the move to bring the sewer system up to date, the project design calls for lagoons originally built in the Elk Creek floodway to be removed and replaced with a land application system elsewhere in the township – a location on the far side of the creek and outside the floodway.


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