Big Sky Group Produces Watershed Plan

News Type: State Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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Treat wastewater to the highest level possible and turn it into snow. Maybe find new places to use it for irrigation. Also, beef up the monitoring and data collection on the Gallatin River.

All those are recommendations in the Big Sky Area Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan, the product of about a year and a half of discussions between a vast group of stakeholders in the area — including conservation groups, developers, irrigators, water managers and government officials. The Gallatin River Task Force released the plan this week.

It charts a sort of path for the next decade of water management in the Big Sky area meant to preserve the Gallatin River’s ecological health and to help solve Big Sky’s issues with wastewater and water supply. If they follow all the recommendations, the path is likely to be very expensive — nearly $1 million a year or more for at least a decade — and where the money may come from is still up in the air.

“It’s pretty ambitious,” said Ron Edwards, the general manager of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District.

The plan marks the end of the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum. The forum consisted of several meetings throughout 2016 and 2017 that brought together environmentalists, developers and government officials to talk about the growing resort community’s future. The findings and recommendations of the stewardship plan will be presented at a public meeting Wednesday evening.

Some of the major recommendations in the report revolves around wastewater. Now, wastewater there is treated and used to water golf courses and a park, but the plan says they’ll soon need different ways to get rid of waste. The plan estimates that Big Sky and the surrounding resorts will generate nearly three times as much wastewater by 2035.

The plan calls for treating wastewater “to the limits of technology.” As for getting rid of it, the plan recommends expanding its use for irrigation and using it to make snow.

Edwards said they have plans to study ways to improve and expand the district’s treatment facility this year. He said they’ll also explore new disposal options, with snowmaking being a popular option.

“Snowmaking has kind of risen to the top of the pile,” he said.

Treated wastewater is used to make snow at a handful of ski resorts around the country, but none in Montana. The details have yet to be worked out — like how the state will regulate it.

Eric Urban, water quality planning bureau chief at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said they’ll start thinking about that when they see a specific proposal.

“When we see a more substantive design and ideas, we can then figure out what permit process is necessary to protect the stream and other uses,” Urban said.

Water supply and availability will be challenged by further growth and changes in weather patterns, the report says. To deal with those challenges, the plan calls for incentivizing water conservation, considering landscaping changes and drought management planning.

It also recommends increased stream monitoring throughout the Gallatin River watershed, specifically to track water quality and fill existing data gaps. The plan also suggests creating a dashboard where the public can look up data on the watershed.

 How to make the plan’s recommendations a reality is something that’s not totally worked out yet.

It sets some goals for the next year and calls for subcommittees focused on specific issues to carry the work into the future, but funding isn’t secured. Kristin Gardner, the executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, said the money to keep the work alive will likely have to come from a combination of private and public sources.

“It’s going to have to come from many different sources,” she said.

All the recommendations in the document were unanimously agreed to by the stakeholder group, but nothing about it is legally binding. That bugs Guy Alsentzer, executive director of Upper Misouri Waterkeeper.

“The real critical issue that Waterkeeper sees moving forward is that this plan is entirely voluntary,” Alsentzer said. “There is no enforcement mechanism.”

He said they need some sort of good-neighbor agreement that will create an “accountability framework” for developers and water managers there.

Gardner said a good-neighbor agreement may be a path forward, depending on its terms. She also said that the whole process has been encouraging to her, to see that people there are interested in keeping the area pristine.

“I think the whole process has been really important to get all the players to the table … working on something that we’re all really passionate about,” Gardner said.