Big Timber Locals Say DEQ Water Worries Overblown

Nov 27, 2017

Every morning at 6 a.m. a group of men gather at the Frosty Freeze in Big Timber to drink coffee and share gossip. It's a diner, decorated with 1950s Coca Cola posters and old records. A sign hanging near the cash register reads, "Cows may come and cows may go, but the bull in this place goes on forever."

Five men sit at a table near the door, and a waitress provides a continuous stream of hot coffee. She places a plastic pitcher with ice cold tap water in the center of the table. Lately, this coffee group has talked a lot about water.

"Most of us drink a little whiskey with it," says one man.

In 2013, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality told the city of Big Timber that harmful microbes like giardia or cryptosporidium could get into the city's water supply. The agency said the town had to build a filtration plant to treat the water. An engineering company estimated that it would cost more than $4.5 million. That's a big lift for a town of only about 1,600 people.

Big Timber's city council protested, but last July they raised water rates about 60 percent to pay for the new filtration system. .

But at the Frosty Freeze, Dave Moore, a real estate agent living in Big Timber, doesn't think he's taking a big risk by drinking the city water now.

"To my knowledge there's nobody in the cemetery yet from our city water," Moore says.

Like many people in Big Timber, he doesn't want pay to fix a problem he doesn't think is real.

"Show me the sick people. Show me the ramifications of it. That carries weight. Numbers telling us what it is means nothing to me until I go see a friend or I'm in the hospital because of it," Moore Says.

Dave Moore at the Frosty Freeze in Big Timber.
Credit Matt Blois

In 2012, DEQ tests detected some harmless microorganisms found in surface water, such as algae and rotifers, in the city's source of drinking water. Those things won't make people sick, but if harmless microorganisms can make it into the water supply then so can harmful ones such as giardia or cryptosporidium.

In 1993 a cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin made more than 400,000 people ill, ultimately killing more than 50. In Red Lodge, Montana, just 60 miles southeast of Big Timber, a third of the town got diarrhea in 1980 because the city didn't adequately treat its water.

But in Sweet Grass County, where Big Timber is the county seat, there have only been 20 reported cases of diseases caused by giardia and cryptosporidium since 1993.

"I'm not skeptical that there might be a little bit of an issue. I'm skeptical that it's the issue they're making it, and that it requires the money they're saying it does to take care of it," Moore says.

While many people in Big Timber say they're willing to roll the dice, that's not a risk the people regulating their water are willing to take.

I went to Montana Department of Environmental Quality headquarters in Helena, where I met with members of the public water supply bureau.

Matt Blois: So this is one gallon of Big Timber tap water, would you guys drink it?

Lisa Kaufman: I won't.

MB: You wouldn't drink it?

LK: Nope.

MB: You're shaking your head, too.

Eugene Pizzini: Not knowingly.

Mark Smith: Not knowing what I know now.

Lisa Kaufman, a surface water treatment specialist with the DEQ, said that while the number of reported waterborne illnesses in Big Timber might seem low, the real number is probably much higher.

"A lot of times people will say, 'Oh I just had the 24 hour flu bug.' There's no such thing. So you either drank something or ate something that made you sick," Kaufman says.

She says if people are getting sick for a day or two in Big Timber, there's a good chance it's because of the water, but very few people report those illnesses.

"You get over it quickly so there's no need to go to the doctor. When it lasts longer, that's when you go to the doctor."

While most healthy people can fight off stomach bugs like giardia and cryptosporidium, they can be deadly for people with weakened immune systems.

Eugene Pizzini is a monitoring and reporting supervisor at the DEQ.

"I don't drink untreated surface water. I would not let my family drink untreated surface water, and therefore I will not let people in the state of Montana drink unfiltered surface water," Pizzini says.

Back in Big Timber though, city council members had had no qualms with drinking the local tap water after a recent city council meeting.

City council members Justin Ferguson and Daniel Thomasson, and Big Timber's immediate past Mayor Mark Stephens all drank a glass of the city tap water to prove how little risk there really was.

Stephens says he fought the DEQ because their tests never actually found any giardia or cryptosporidium in the water, and he wanted to save the city taxpayers money.

"There's always a low risk to everything we do in life. We've got to quit catering to all this low risk stuff and people have got to learn there is a little risk in life," Stephens says.

However, the DEQ says the fact that its tests didn't find any giardia or cryptosporidium doesn't mean the risk is low because its tests aren't really designed to look for those bugs.

Chemical contaminants are easy to find because they get dissolved evenly into water, like sugar in a cup of coffee, so almost every faucet in town will have some evidence of contamination. Microbial contaminants are clumpy, which makes them hard to find because they might be in some samples, but not others.

Big Timber's former mayor, Mark Stephens, said that if the DEQ can't prove there are disease-causing bugs in the water, the city shouldn't have to come up with $4.5 million for a treatment plant.

"If they were to propose that we have to have this, they pay for the damn thing," Stephens says.

In fact, the state is going to front the money for the plant. The city is taking out a low interest rate loan in from the State Revolving Loan Fund, a program funded by the EPA and state governments to help cities build water infrastructure. Even with that loan, financing a treatment plant is expensive. In July, Big Timber's water rates rose from about $32 a month per household, to about $50.

Over at the Big Timber public works shop, public works director and water plant operator Kris Novotony says the new filtration plant is worth the money.

"I hate to see the money that has to be spent for this filtration system. And I know that the system has worked this well for so many years, but there's always that one chance," he says.

It's his responsibility to provide people in town with clean water, and that's what he intends to do.

"I don't know if we've been lucky over the years, or what it is. I really don't know, but this is really more of a peace of mind for everybody else in town."

While some in Big Timber find it hard to believe that the crystal clear Boulder River could harbor dangerous microbes, Novotny has noticed that after big storms or days with heavy snow melt the city water becomes turbid. He knows once the filtration plant is installed he won't have to worry about that anymore.

The town is hoping that the water treatment plant will be up and running by this time next year.