The City of Missoula began a poplar tree plantation project for the land application of treated wastewater in 2009. Because of it's success, on Thursday, officials unveiled the expansion of the project to over 160 acres, located adjacent to the Wastewater Treatment Plant.

photo by Peter Christian

Wastewater Plant Superintendent Starr Sullivan explained the purpose of the project.

"The city has always been looking for alternate methods of wastewater treatment, so in 2008, we began looking at land application of our effluent," Sullivan said. "We started this pilot project of 1.6 acres, and it was a success, so we wanted to expand it out. So, we're going to expand it out about a half-mile west of here to over 160 acres. The whole purpose is to keep phosphorous and nitrogen out of the Clark Fork River."

Sullivan explained why the project involves only poplar trees.

"Poplars were chosen because they are very fast-growing, they uptake a lot of water, and they have a value at the end of their maturity," Sullivan said. "These trees are going to be managed as saw logs, so that wood can eventually be sold."

Treatment Plant Superintendent Starr Sullivan

photo by Peter Christian

Mark Van Der Meer of Watershed Consulting is the forester and soil scientist for the project.

"My job is to make sure we get the trees into the ground and grow them correctly for about 12 years, and then I'll be in charge of harvesting them," Van Der Meer said. "The idea actually started over 14 years ago when a friend of mine and I wrote a paper in college about just this type of project. I think I got a 'B'. Now, the project has finally come to fruition. We're looking to plant over 70,000 trees."

Van Der Meer was asked if there would be a market for the trees once they reach maturity, and in fact he has his own plans for the harvest.

"By a great coincidence, I run and operate a sawmill," Van Der Meer said. "so, yeah, I'm interested... very interested. We love poplar-wood, its good stuff, and especially the way we're going to grow these trees, we're going to be pruning them every year for high quality wood. So, I've really got my eye on maintaining all these trees all the way to the end, so, It's a good thing I live here."

Mark Van Der Meer of Watershed Consulting

City officials said at maturity the poplar plantation will divert one million gallons a day of treated, sterilized wastewater effluent in the summer, nearly 10% of the plant's total discharge. Cost of the project from 2013 through 2027 will be $1.375 million dollars.