By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – Additional wastewater disposal options and fee structures for connecting new development into Big Sky’s water and sewer system dominated discussion at a March 22 Big Sky Water and Sewer District board meeting.
The board weighed the merits of various wastewater disposal options, a prominent topic in the community in the wake of the Yellowstone Club wastewater pond spill last month that sent approximately 30 million gallons of treated effluent into the Gallatin River.
BSWSD General Manager Ron Edwards said designs for another wastewater storage pond – this one a 20-million-gallon reservoir that would provide irrigation for the Spanish Peaks golf course – are underway, but have not yet been submitted to Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Edwards said he supports construction of the Spanish Peaks pond because of the golf course component, but is leery of bringing another Yellowstone Club wastewater pond online, an option the district could pursue according to the terms of a 2001 agreement between BSWSD and Yellowstone Club.
“I’m over storage ponds,” Edwards said. “I’m over relying on third parties to manage this stuff … We need another piece of this that is 100 percent under our control … and that piece is a pipeline to [the Gallatin] River.”
BSWSD had a DEQ-issued permit to discharge into the Gallatin in 1998. That permit allowed for the discharge of 15 million gallons into the river during peak runoff, Edwards said, calling the amount, “ … three days of Bozeman discharge, essentially.”
The permit was never used; lawsuits filed by Montana River Action and other environmental groups prevented the pipeline from being built.
Although Edwards acknowledges it’s still a contentious issue, he said, “I think it may be viewed differently this time around.” Referencing area growth, he added, “I see it as inevitable given the involvement of Big Sky.”
If granted, the permit would allow for a winter-only discharge. Edwards estimates pipeline construction would cost about $2 million, but said it’s been a couple years since the district has run the numbers. “I’m not advocating [for] it as the first line of use,” Edwards said. “It’s having a plan C available.”
“I see it as inevitable given the involvement of Big Sky,” said BSWSD general manager Ron Edwards in reference to Big Sky’s rapid growth and the need for a wastewater discharge permit to the Gallatin River.
Disposing of wastewater via snowmaking is another option the board discussed. During a March 28 phone conversation with EBS, Edwards said there’s currently no snowmaking using wastewater and “it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be, either.”
Fee structures for connecting new development to water and sewer infrastructure were also discussed at the March 22 board meeting.
Malcolm Munkittrick, an analyst with fiscal, economic and planning consulting firm TischlerBise, presented several approaches the district could use to recover the cost of existing infrastructure, fund future infrastructure, or address both current and future needs.
Impact fees allow developers to use existing, unused water and sewer capacity by paying a predetermined rate per unit. The preliminary rate Munkittrick came up with based upon current and projected demand is $3,000 per single-family equivalent.
A plan-based approach identifies specific improvement projects designed to expand existing capacity. It would use property tax levies to repay a bond secured to fund such improvements. If the plan is approved, the district must build the infrastructure outlined in the plan or refund the money secured for its construction.
Current impact fees are based on sewer access only and cost $3,500 per single-family equivalent. If the board adopts the proposed changes, water and sewer impact fees will be levied separately, with $2,100 going toward sewer capital recovery and $900 earmarked for water capital recovery.
Under the current fiscal policy, the district is unable to collect fees from certain exempt developments like Town Center and West Fork Meadows due to existing agreements and past legal rulings regarding sewer access. Under the new plan, the district would be able to collect $900 for water access from these developments when a permit is issued.
The BSWSD is required to hold a public hearing before fee changes are implemented, according to Edwards, who said it’s been three years since the last such meeting.
Edwards said set costs for these impact fees haven’t been firmly established yet, and it’s likely that any changes would be rolled into the district’s annual budget, which is still in draft stage. The district’s fiscal year starts on July 1.
Other BSWSD agenda items included a backlog of 300 single-family equivalent wastewater permits. Edwards needs input from the plant’s engineer regarding plant capacity and the board’s approval to issue the permits, 277 of which stem from a new lodge under construction in Spanish Peaks.
Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force informed the board that a project is underway to garner community input on potential wastewater solutions and other water-quality and conservation issues. She said independent consultant Karen Filipovich has been hired to interview local stakeholders.
By phone on March 28, Gardner told EBS that the project, formerly known as the Wastewater Solutions Group, has been renamed the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum to more accurately reflect the breadth of its scope.
Funding for Phase 1 of the project, to the tune of $15,000, has been provided by the Yellowstone Club and Lone Mountain Land Company. If Filipovich and her technical advisors find enough interest in a collaborative approach to address water issues, the project will move forward.
The list of stakeholders to be interviewed is long and includes county commissioners, local developers, government agencies like Montana DEQ, BSWSD policy makers and a handful of nonprofits.
Gardner said the Wastewater Solutions Group addressed similar issues from about 2007 to 2012. She said the economic downturn and the lack of a full-time facilitator slowed the project, but she’s hopeful that a designated consultant will lead to greater momentum behind this effort.
Ron Edwards will host two public informational meetings about the Yellowstone Club wastewater spill for community members unable to attend the March 9 meeting. They will both take place at 7 p.m., on Tuesday, April 5 and Thursday, April 7 in the BSWSD conference room.