Preliminary test results positive

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

On a 30-degree day in November, Rich Chandler and
Alicia DeGroot filled two large Hefty trash bags with
manmade snow, skimming the top few inches of the
pile beneath the snowmaking gun.

This spot, above the Yellowstone Club’s golf course, is
the site of a pilot for effluent snowmaking that’s run by
the Big Sky Wastewater Solutions Forum. This group
is the result of a partnership between the Big Sky Water
and Sewer District and the resorts, and works with
The Blue Water Task Force, a local nonprofit where
DeGroot works, to coordinate the water sampling.

The gun, donated by Techno Alpine, roared in the
background, using 60 gallons of water per minute
pumped uphill from an 80 million gallon holding pond
that is winter storage for BSWSD and the YC. During
this 20-day period, the gun blew approximately a
million gallons over the two-acre plot, which drains
directly back into the pond.

This snow has about 20 percent snow water equivalent,
explained Chandler, who manages the Yellowstone
Club’s environmental program. That’s the same
as normal snowmaking.

“Pretty cool it’s not yellow, huh?” he joked. “Everybody
thinks it’s low end treated, but it doesn’t smell.”
He later pointed out it conforms to California title 22
reclaimed water standards, a very high treatment standard
that allows for non-restricted irrigation use.

Nate Johnson, a snow maker with the Yellowstone
Club, monitored the generator, piping and gun as part
of a 24-7 coverage of the project. The club donated
these employee hours, along with the site and much of
the equipment.

Next, Chandler accessed the pond with a rope, carefully
descending down the slippery liner to the frozen
surface. He cut a hole at the edge and filled several
sample bottles with the original treated effluent water,
then checked the PH and connectivity.

DeGroot took the trash bags that afternoon back to the
BSWSD lab, melted it, and sent the water samples to
Energy Labs in Billings that evening for testing. The
water samples set baseline parameters to
which the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous
in the melted snow were compared.

Total bacteria, as well as E coli coliforms,
solids and turbidity were also tested.
The sampling results that came back in late
December were promising, Chandler said.

“After receiving preliminary testing results
it seems as though the snowmaking process
is reducing some of the elements in the
reclaimed water,” he said. “We are excited
to prove this process throughout the winter
months and during runoff.”

The decrease in several of the contaminants
in the water is good news, and is likely the
result of the snowmaking process having atomized the
water molecules, treating them further.

However, the results are too preliminary to discuss in
detail, Chandler said.

Long term

The project’s aim is not ultimately to blow snow onto
ski trails.

Instead, it’s creating additional winter storage for effluent
during the busy winter season, and relieve the
burden in ponds in the meadow, says Ron Edwards,
general manager of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District.
When Big Sky is fully built out (it’s at 40 percent
now), there won’t be enough storage.

Currently in Big Sky, treated effluent is stored in the
ponds and then irrigated onto the golf courses in the
summer. Big Sky doesn’t discharge anything into rivers,
which is what happens to the majority of effluent
in Montana, Edwards said.

For now, the snow guns are shut off until spring. This
winter, Chandler and DeGroot will return to take
snow core samples once a month. That, Chandler says,
will test the whole profile of the snow.

“We’re hoping to find out if any treatment takes place
in the snowpack itself.”

The real test will be in the spring when the stuff melts
off, which is when they’ll sample the groundwater
and the melt water, Edwards said.

Engineer Ray Armstrong with Billings-based HKM
Engineering designed the project. He estimates it will
take several years to get going, and says the immediate
goal is to prove to the DEQ it’s an environmentally safe
process.

Sugarloaf Resort, in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, has
had a large-scale effluent snowmaking process since
1995.

“It blended in well with the ski resort,” said Dave
Keith with the area’s sanitary district. “People understand
snowmaking. To apply that same technology to
waste—it was embraced by everyone.”

Keith says it allowed his district to continue residential commercial growth at the resort, without having to
build additional lagoons. He says the water melting off
these piles is, in most cases, cleaner than the groundwater
it’s being introduced to.

“We’re an arid high desert and we rely on snowpack
recharge for our aquifers,” Edwards said. “We need to
protect those drinking water aquifers from over depletion.
If you’re filling water for your golf course out of
the stream or wells, it could impact our source water
for drinking water.”