By Margo Magnant EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Education and awareness. Those are the keys to implementing an effective drought management plan in the Upper Gallatin River watershed, according to a small focus group that met Feb. 21 in Big Sky.

A number of interrelated factors have compounded to make drought planning a necessity in the region, among them warmer, drier climate trends and the threat of wildfire. Currently, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District board is discussing plans to address the largest usage of water resources within the district: irrigation.

At a Feb. 20 meeting of the BSWSD board, considerable time was spent discussing the strain that unrestricted landscape irrigation puts on supply, and the necessity to redefine “surplus,” since water designated as such can be sold to entities outside of the district.

Brian Wheeler, director of real estate and development at Big Sky Resort, pointed out that the board has been so focused on wastewater disposal while there was also this other major issue of supply. He turned to district Water Superintendent Jim Muscat who agreed that addressing imminent water supply shortages should be as high a priority as implementing wastewater disposal solutions.

Gallatin River Task Force is on track to present a “Landscape Water Efficiency Ordinance” to the district board next month.

The drought focus group, facilitated by the Gallatin River Task Force, has met five times since last spring, and is a parallel effort to the Big Sky Water Solutions Forum, which culminated in the release of the Big Sky Area Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan in January.

Big Sky Fire Department Battalion Chief Seth Barker, a member of the focus group, stressed the importance of the planning effort in terms of the local economy. For example, he said that if the availability of local recreational activities is reduced due to poor drought planning, “it affects everyone.”

Local resident Steve Johnson, a candidate for the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board, pointed out that second homeowners might not be aware of the importance of sustainable landscaping when it comes to fire mitigation efforts and a reduced strain on local water resources. “They’re a difficult stakeholder group to reach,” Johnson said.

To address this challenge, the group discussed targeting local homeowner associations as well as landscape and property management companies to advocate for more awareness of drought concerns among part-time residents.

An outline of the Upper Gallatin Drought Management Plan is posted on the GRTF website. Many models for implementation of the plan exist across Montana and the U.S., but Big Sky’s rapid growth and unique community infrastructure create additional challenges for the focus group moving forward. The city of Bozeman finalized a plan of its own in January 2017.

Barker emphasized that the fire department has been advocating for “fire-wise” community engagement for more than 20 years. For example, Big Sky resident Janelle Johnson explained how BSFD Chief William Farhat visited her house and provided recommendations for her and her neighbors in terms of providing defensible space from a fire threat. The fire department’s website includes a variety of resources for property owners as well.

Spreading the word about these available programs and resources is key to mitigating the effects of an increased threat of drought and limited water supply resources, the group concluded. “But there is a strong need to gain more input from other community members and groups,” said Emily Casey, the GRTF’s water conservation program coordinator.

The next meeting of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District board will be Tuesday, March 20, at 8 a.m. in the BSWSD building in the Meadow Village Center. Visit gallatinrivertaskforce.org for more information about the drought forum.

EBS Senior Editor Sarah Gianelli contributed reporting for this story.