Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Looking to keep nutrients from entering the Clark Force River, the Missoula City Council on Wednesday approved a contract with a local business to manage the irrigation system that waters the poplar farm.

The city created the poplar farm in the early 2000s to reduce its release of phosphorus and nitrogen into the Clark Fork River, beyond what the wastewater plant was capable of doing on its own.

During the growing season, the city diverts around 1.3 million gallons of treated wastewater daily to irrigate the tree farm. The plants absorb the phosphorus and nitrogen into the plant tissue, creating cleaner runoff.

“We've amassed a lot of time and money into these poplar trees. If we're not going to water them, they'll die,” said Logan McGinnis, deputy director of utilities with Public Works. “We're keeping pollutants out of the river by doing this. This has been a big effort for wastewater dating back for 10 or more years. There's been a lot of thought put into this.”

To keep the irrigation system running, members of the City Council on Wednesday authorized the mayor sign an agreement with Sprinkler Maniac. The $110,000 contract charges the local business with operating and maintain the system.

While most city contracts over a certain dollar amount require a bid for contracts, McGinnis said Sprinkler Maniac has knowledge of the system and therefore, the city can give sole-source authorization for their service.

“This company has spent several years out there. They know what all the issues are,” said McGinnis. “It's a very complicated system to run. There's a water filtration system and a bunch of control valves. It takes a long time to figure out where stuff is, how it works and how to keep it running.”

Funding for the contract will come of the Wastewater Enterprise Fund.

The city last year explored plans to remove the trees and mulch them, so that carbon can be sequestered in the soils. There is no market for wood products, the city has said, and the trees at slowly dying back.

With a need to diver nutrients from the river, the city also has explored plans to replace the trees with an alfalfa crop. The crop would be irrigated under the current system and the alfalfa harvested and sold.

For now, however, the poplar trees will remain.

“The primary purpose of the poplar farm was to reduce the amount of nutrient going into the river,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “The capitalizing of the actual farm and the products was secondary.”