Big Sky nonprofit’s plan to conserve water

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – According to Emily Casey with the Big Sky nonprofit Gallatin River Task Force, Big Sky’s water use increases threefold during the summer because of outdoor watering and lawn irrigation. For this very reason, GRTF has expanded its water conservation program this year, and now offers rebates for watering systems labeled under the name WaterSense, a certification that the products meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s specifications for water efficiency and performance.

The Outdoor Rebate Program, launched this spring, is similar to the existing Indoor Rebate Program developed by GRTF. Rebates will be offered to participating homeowners who have purchased water-wise products for their lawns specifically labeled to conserve water. These products include weather-based smart controllers, rain sensors and sprinkler heads and nozzles.

Participants are also eligible for a rebate if they perform a spring outdoor audit and system checkup with one of several approved local providers. In order to qualify for 2017 outdoor rebates, homeowners need to have installed products by July 1, 2016, and submit applications by June 30.

“It’s really important to look at the easy ways we can reduce water use,” said Scott Savage, who conducts spring outdoor audits and lawn irrigation installs through his company Paso Irrigation. For outdoor water use, Savage explained one easy way to conserve water is to be aware of actual water needs. Plant types, sun and shade dynamics and weather all play a role in lawn irrigation needs, he said.

Casey said GRTF will host a workshop about landscaping options that minimize water use in July.

Casey and Savage both recommend installing weather-based smart controllers as a way to conserve water. The controller connects with local weather stations and has custom inputs that allow it to regulate the amount of water used by the sprinkler system based on actual lawn needs.

“One commercial client tried a smart controller for a year and it took them two months to recoup the cost of that controller … and they’re going to be saving [money and water] for years,” Savage said. “In addition to saving water you can also save a little in the pocket.”

Combined with the Indoor Rebate Program, GRTF’s water conservation program includes 24 participants who are saving a combined 1,530 gallons of water every day, as of May 31.

“Our slogan is ‘Each drop of water saved is one that remains in the river,’” Casey said, noting the interrelationship between groundwater, surface water and overall water use.

“We have such a large tourist, second-home owner and seasonal population, that people may come here for a short time and not realize the kind of impacts they are having,” Casey explained, referencing the 2015 Sewer District’s Source Capacity Plan that stated the average person in Big Sky used 125 gallons of water per day in 2015, as compared with the U.S. average of about 100 gallons of water used each day by a single person.

Big Sky’s water comes from a number of groundwater wells, said Ron Edwards, general manager of Big Sky Water and Sewer District. “Water saved through leak repairs and conservation is equivalent to drilling new wells for source capacity.”

Big Sky could face threats to our water supply, Casey said, noting how water sourced from the Meadow Village aquifer is connected to recharge from snowpack and could be impacted by low-precipitation winters.

“Increasing development and growth puts more stress on groundwater supplies,” she added. “If we can take steps and strategies every day to promote water conservation, then we are better prepared to face those threats in the future.”

Big Sky Water Conservation Program is just the second municipal water conservation program in the state, following a similar program started in Bozeman. In addition to its outdoor component, Big Sky’s program offers rebates for water conservation inside the home and new water-wise appliance installs could be eligible. The indoor residential rebate program began last fall after GRTF secured funding from the BSWSD and Big Sky Resort Area District tax. These sources are also funding the Outdoor Rebate Program.

GRTF hopes to expand the program even further by offering a commercial rebate program in the future and is excited to make partnerships with stakeholders in the community, Casey said.

To learn more about Gallatin River Task Force’s Big Sky Water Conservation Program, visit gallatinrivertaskforce.org/projects/waterconservation.