Belgrade sewer lagoons

An aerial photo shows the Belgrade sewage lagoons located on airport land east of town. While not officially approved by the Belgrade City Council just yet, the city has secured funds to build a new $25 million sewer system set to start next spring. No public bonds will be necessary for the project.

Funding has been secured to upgrade and expand Belgrade’s municipal sewer system, which should serve the city’s needs for the next 20 years, according to current growth projections.

City Manager Ted Barkley said that work on the project will begin next spring and is expected to be completed at the end of 2021.

“Our ability to grow beyond areas we’ve annexed is limited until the project is complete,” said Barkley, as he explained why Belgrade doesn’t have any time to waste in the midst of the current building boom. “It’s a fairly aggressive timetable, but I think it’s do-able.”

Currently, Belgrade’s sewage plant handles about a million gallons per day, and officials expect that amount to nearly double to 1.9 million gallons over the next 20 years. While the new system will be designed to handle at least that load, Barkley said the final design capacity is still being determined because the city hopes to “buy the most capacity we can.” In any case, the new system will be designed to accommodate future add-ons after the new maximum capacity is reached.

Due to the tremendous growth of the city, time has run out for Belgrade to expand its sewer system. In order to accommodate development of already approved plats in the city, Belgrade had to secure a deviance from the state Department of Environmental Quality that will allow the city to treat up to 1.25 million gallons of wastewater per day before the system expansion is finished.

Property owners interested in annexation have been told that while their land could become part of Belgrade before the system expansion is complete, the city will be unable to issue approval for development of such properties until the additional treatment capacity is in place. That’s because state law mandates that sewage capacity be in place for development before project approvals are granted.

The total amount budgeted for the construction and financing of the sewer project, which will include adding chemical components to the current 

lagoon system, is $25.35 million. The city of Belgrade has $420,000 in municipal funds on hand, and has been awarded a $1.68 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development program for the project. The remaining costs will be financed through a $10.9 million USDA Rural Development loan and a $12.35 million loan – which includes $350,000 that will be forgiven off the top – from the Revolving Loan Fund from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The loans, financed at a proposed rate of 2.75 percent, will be repaid by the city over the next 40 years. Those payments were figured into the new utility rate schedule that went into effect at the first of this year. 

Barkley said the long-term payoff ensures that future users and not just current ratepayers will share the expense of the system upgrades.

“We’re pretty confident that the rate schedule in place will cover the cost,” not only the capital portions of the project, but also the costs of staffing a new treatment plant 24/7, Barkley said. The lagoon treatment system used by the city now does not require that level of staffing.

The state and federal loans are subject to Belgrade City Council approval, and Barkley expects the council to consider the question at its Oct. 7 meeting.

There are significant advantages to the proposed financing plan over other methods that might have funded the project, Barkley added.

“The good news is that we’ve got strong assurances that funding is available without having to issue bonds, which saves ratepayers a considerable amount of money,” he said.

Capital additions to the new system include two clarifiers, two oxidation ditches, a new transmission line from the main part of the city to the plant, and a building to house a lab, administrative offices and the system’s maintenance facility.

In addition to development pressure, Barkley said it makes sense for municipalities to act sooner rather than later because regulations governing sewer plant development are becoming ever more stringent.

“As the regulatory environment for sewer plants get tougher, it is more challenging to comply,” he said.