What matters more than water?

Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum issues its watershed stewardship plan

“I think we want to be better. I think Big Sky can be a model.” —Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director with American Rivers

Rushing past House Rock on the Gallatin River. Landing a 12-inch rainbow trout in the West Fork of the Gallatin. Skiing early season groomers at Big Sky Resort. Downing a cold glass of untreated tap water. These are all experiences valued by residents of Big Sky—and they all hinge upon a healthy water system. But how do we best manage the valuable resource as demand and use climb at a rapid rate?

The Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum recently completed its Watershed Stewardship Plan, a nearly 200-page roadmap with data and guidelines for the work likely to come over the next decade. The stewardship plan, spearheaded by the Gallatin River Task Force and funded via Big Sky’s resort tax and Gallatin and Madison counties, focuses on three areas: ecological health of river systems, water supply and availability and wastewater treatment and reuse.

If all recommendations in the plan are followed, the cost will be upwards of $1 million per year. That funding has not yet been secured, but could come from government grants, community-approved bonds and other business and public agency budgets.

Community members filled the basement of the Big Sky Chapel on Jan. 31 to hear about these topics firsthand from seven of the 35 stakeholders—which include government officials, conservationists, scientists, and more—who worked to create the plan. They each took turns describing their findings and suggestions.

Buck’s T4 co-owner and Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Dave O’Connor spoke early in the meeting, saying, “Whether you are a businessperson, a community member with environmental interest, a recreationalist, a landowner working to maximize your investment—I just can’t think of anybody whose interests are not represented in the water system and water situation in Big Sky.”

A look at our supply

Watershed hydrologist Jeff Dunn then dove into the nuts and bolts of the complex plan. When it comes to ecological health, three streams in the Big Sky area fail to meet Montana’s water quality standards, but more monitoring and understanding of habitat is needed to fully grasp the quality issue. The forum stakeholders came to consensus on amping up monitoring, furthering community outreach and working on watershed restoration and conservation.

Focusing on water supply, projections for water consumption needs suggest the community demand for water will exceed what’s available by 2025, and when that time comes, no further water rights can be allocated in the Gallatin or Madison watersheds. The group agreed more groundwater monitoring and modeling is needed, as well as work to define strategies for water conservation, storm water management and mitigation of water rights.

“Big Sky runs on groundwater, point number one,” Mike Richter of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology said at the meeting. “We don’t have any surface water reservoirs that we can pull water out of—we pump it all out of the ground here.”

Big Sky’s best aquifers, said Richter, are its shallow sand and water aquifers—the ones that provide highest well yields and best water quality. Their maximum depth is 60 feet and they are mostly 10 to 20 feet deep, “so they’re quite shallow,” Richter said, noting that they are connected to surface water and therefore vulnerable to contamination.

There is currently an ongoing Bureau of Mines and Geology groundwater study taking a detailed look at the Meadow Village aquifer with 22 sites monitoring changing water levels and how they’re recharged. Or as Richter described it, “groundwater catch-and-release.” Ten years of hourly water level data shows two recharge events every year—snowmelt in the spring and another recharge in the fall. “What that is, is storm water—precipitation events recharging the aquifer,” he said.

Data from 2012 shows a downturn in water levels. “It’s showing us that this system does respond to droughts,” and storm events, said Richter. “This fall there was a three-foot water level rise in the aquifer from the big storms that passed through.”

“This is a great advertisement for strong storm water management in this area,” added Richter. “Because as we develop Big Sky, paving things, we could potentially interfere with that system that allows precipitation to recharge the aquifer.”

The West Fork of the Gallatin River also pulls water from the aquifer in addition to public well use. “So, this is why water conservation in Big Sky is probably what’s going to carry us through if we’re going to make this all work,” Richter said. “Because the water’s got to come from somewhere. And at some rate of groundwater withdrawal, you’ll start dewatering these streams.”

What about wastewater?

Big Sky is currently a zero-discharge community. The Big Sky Water and Sewer District uses its wastewater to irrigate the golf course and Community Park in the Meadow Village, the Yellowstone Club does the same at its golf course, and Moonlight Basin uses its effluent to mitigate forest fires.

The Water Solutions Forum agreed it’s necessary to treat water to the limits of technology, addressing septic and small community systems, expanding water reuse for irrigation, developing further water reuse for snowmaking and investigating shallow groundwater recharge.

Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, works with water conservation efforts around the U.S. He was asked to speak about his experiences with other collaborative forums, putting in perspective the work being done in Big Sky.

Bosse discussed the juxtaposition between using and enjoying Big Sky’s amenities and the desire to slow the community’s growth and impact. Then he addressed the idea of directly discharging treated wastewater into the Gallatin River. He looked to Big Sky’s peers for comparison—Jackson Hole, Sun Valley and Aspen are all authorized to discharge millions of gallons per day of treated wastewater into their local rivers.

“Big Sky is always asking itself, ‘What do we want to be when we grow up? Do we want to be Jackson Hole? Do we want to be Sun Valley? Do we want to be Aspen? I don’t think we want to be any of those,” Bosse said. “I think we want to be better. I think Big Sky can be a model.”

The stewardship plan placed its focus on investigating opportunities in using treated wastewater for golf course irrigation as well as snowmaking. While the document did address the topic of piping effluent into the Gallatin River, it was determined that more information was needed before an official stance could be taken.

The topic was touched on again during the community question period, when a man in the crowd wanted to know, which stakeholders were “holdouts” for piping treated wastewater into the Gallatin River?

“Holdout is the wrong question,” meeting facilitator Karen Filipovich responded. “There’s a set of unresolved questions, and I would hate to pigeon hole any one of these stakeholders as this being a holdout because really, we didn’t have a convergence of perspectives based on the information that was available right now.”

When it comes to direct discharge into the river, Filipovich did note that, “There are people who think it’s a genuinely beneficial way to go.”

O’Connor offered his thoughts as well: “From whatever perspective they (the stakeholder) were coming from, they ended up saying, ‘Look, I can’t even consider this idea one way or the other until these questions are answered.’ The conversation because of that didn’t get to a point of ‘Are you for this or against this?’ because it couldn’t be agreed on what the ‘this’ is.”

A link to the watershed plan is posted on the Gallatin River Taskforce’s Facebook page.

More Information

The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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