By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – After breaking for the summer, the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum started digging into the most controversial and challenging piece of their three-pronged effort during a Sept. 21 meeting in the Big Sky Water and Sewer District board room: wastewater.

Forum facilitators encountered resistance to a direct discharge to the Gallatin River during a well-attended meeting at the Bozeman Public Library on Sept. 18. Gallatin River Task Force Executive Director Kristin Gardner, forum facilitator Karen Filipovich and watershed scientist Jeff Dunn presented the challenges facing the 36-stakeholder forum, as well as potential solutions to address those challenges.

During the Q&A and comment portion of the meeting, little support among attendees could be found for a direct discharge solution for wastewater storage and disposal, which has been explored by the BSWSD with greater interest recently as growth in Big Sky has accelerated. The BSWSD is approaching its disposal capacity, and it could hit its upper disposal limit as early as 2022.

“This is not just in Big Sky, this is watershed-wide,” said Susan Duncan, who sits on the board of the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council, at the Bozeman meeting. “It’s everybody’s problem.”

At the stakeholder meeting in Big Sky, Dunn presented five wastewater treatment and disposal scenarios that would accommodate Big Sky’s growth, and each of them contained some measure of direct discharge into the Gallatin, which would involve a permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the construction of a pipe that would discharge treated effluent into the Gallatin River or one of its tributaries.

Enthusiasm among the stakeholders for snowmaking with effluent—which could potentially minimize or nullify the need for a pipe to the Gallatin—grew as the meeting progressed.

“It’s all about level of treatment and DEQ permitting—if those things could be resolved, then our community could embrace snowmaking,” said Big Sky Resort General Manager Taylor Middleton, adding that it would be a smart move given climate change and warming temperatures across the state.

“We currently snow-make with about 100 million gallons of water, but we could snow-make with 300 million gallons of water,” Middleton said. “If you really got after it up in the bowl, you might be able to make a glacier up there.”

BSWSD General Manager Ron Edwards said the golf community has embraced irrigation with treated effluent for 40 years. “We play in the desert, we play all over the country and nobody thinks twice about it,” he said. “The ski industry is years behind in this whole concept.”

“It’s going to come down to water quality, and you’re going to have to have pictures of us drinking the water,” Middleton said. “I’m going to have to drink a glass of the water.”

“You would be the perfect person,” responded GRTF Education and Communications Coordinator Stephanie Lynn, eliciting a round of laughter throughout the room.

The permit that’s required from DEQ is the same one required for a pipeline to the Gallatin, said municipal engineer Ray Armstrong, who designed the plant’s current facilities. He added that DEQ appeared to be on board with issuing such a permit based on earlier conversations conducted when a pilot project was pursued.

No such permits for using effluent to make snow have been granted in the state of Montana, pointed out Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors Chair David O’Connor. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that this particular solution is not a tool that we have in the box that we can choose to pull out—it’s a tool we would have to forge on the ground and put in the box in the first place.”

“This is not going to happen immediately, even if you love it,” facilitator Filipovich said.

Gardner said the forum needs more information about how much wastewater could be disposed with snowmaking to help the group move forward in their consideration of the options before them.

The next meeting of the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum is scheduled for Nov. 3, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the BSWSD boardroom. A community information meeting with the Rotary Club of Big Sky is scheduled for Oct. 18.

EBS Contributor Jessianne Wright contributed reporting to this piece from the Sept. 18 meeting in Bozeman.