Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Cooke City sewer project receives $1.45M in federal money

by Lilly Keller

Cooke City will soon have an upgraded sewer system thanks to $1.45 million in federal money earmarked for the gateway town’s efforts to complete sewer projects and improve access to clean, reliable drinking water.

This move comes as towns surrounding Yellowstone National Park, including West Yellowstone, grapple with outdated systems, wastewater leakage and potential health risks exacerbated by tourism. Despite having only 77 full-time residents according to census data, Cooke City’s population more than doubles during tourist season, intensifying strain on its sewage infrastructure. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester played a role in securing the money as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Currently, all residents use individual sewer systems. However, in 2015, these drain fields began encroaching on U.S. Forest Service property. To protect the land, the Forest Service mandated a new system, according to Marilyn Hartley from the Cooke City Water District.

Following the mandate, Hartley said the water district led the effort to establish a new sewer system and initiate the project.

She said the project is estimated to cost over $12 million, and the town plans to use grants, loans and federal funds to finance it.

“We’re not sure exactly how long it’s going to take, you know, we might have to do it in phases, as money comes available to keep the cost for the townspeople as low as possible,” Hartley said.

The first stage of the project — installing the main pipes through the city and connecting residents and businesses with encroaching drain fields to the city system — is expected to be completed by next summer, according to Hartley.

After the new system is completed, residents will still maintain their own septic tanks, but the waste will be directed into the new system.

“This funding is such a great boost and sustains our hope and enthusiasm that a community of less than 60 people can complete the project,” said Deb Purvis, board president for the Cooke Pass, Cooke City, Silver Gate Sewer District in Tester’s press release announcing the funding. “There is still a lot of work to be done, and we are committed to completing a system that will sustain the pristine nature of our community and the northeast portion of Yellowstone Park.”

Hartley said the seasonal influx of tourists to Yellowstone National Park worsened the town’s water issues, making it crucial to start the new system to handle the increased water and waste.

“Speaking from the water district’s perspective, the amount of water that’s consumed during those periods of time is drastically increased,” Hartley said. “In the summertime, they’re bombarded with tourists in and out of the park in the wintertime. It’s the skiing and snowmobiling that people are drawn to, so they have a significant influx.”

She added that Yellowstone has always cooperated well with the city and recognizes the importance of the new system.

A site for the system’s drain field has not yet been determined. However, Hartley said the Forest Service would likely sell property to the sewer district for this purpose.

“Water infrastructure is critically important to support businesses, create jobs, and keep folks healthy and it’s especially important in rural areas like Cooke City that don’t have certainty when it comes to clean and reliable drinking water,” Tester said in a press release. “I’m proud to have secured these funds for Cooke City, and I’ll keep pushing to make sure these projects are completed effectively and efficiently.”