Utility looks to Big Sky district for help

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Two representatives of Westfork Water and Wastewater, the private utility company that owns and operates the water supply system for the Firelight development, presented an ominous situation to the board of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District at a June 19 meeting.

Utility owners Matt Huggins and Kevin Loustaunau explained that the company is addressing the water supply shortage in the near term by supplementing their two drinking water wells with water from a separate irrigation well—which irritates some homeowners who want to retain green landscaping. But if this doesn’t sufficiently meet the spike in demand, they will likely need to purchase water from the district.

In the long term, Westfork Water and Wastewater has received approval from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to drill an additional well, and are in the process of securing a contractor for the project. They’re also installing water usage meters for each unit, which will detect any isolated leaks that may be contributing to the low supply.

In a phone interview following the meeting, Huggins explained that the water demand from users during high-occupancy times, such as ski season and summer vacation, is greater than what their well pumps can supply.

Big Sky Water and Sewer District Manager Ron Edwards put it into perspective by saying that a single district well in the Meadow Village can produce 200 gallons per minute, while the two Firelight wells combined are currently producing only 27 gallons per minute. Huggins said that the Firelight wells were designed to be low-supply wells, and that prior to the development’s construction, engineers projected they would adequately meet demand.

The Firelight utility had to tap into the district’s water this past winter when a water pump failed and depleted their stored water to the low level limit. The same water used for drinking is also for fire protection. “Whenever it goes below the low limit, it constitutes as an emergency situation,” Huggins said.

With the time that it took to replace the pump, Huggins said that they were barely able to keep up with the winter demand. They weren’t able to fully replenish the tank until the shoulder season, and by early June increasing demand was already putting strain on the supply.

Firelight residents receive a health advisory notification any time the irrigation well is used to augment the wells officially vetted by the DEQ as public water supply wells, as they did on June 18. After samples from the irrigation well met the safety standards of an Environmental Protection Agency-approved lab, the utility received permission from the DEQ to temporarily use that water after it’s treated and disinfected according to DEQ guidelines.

At this point, Huggins said they are uncertain whether they will require additional water from the district. It will depend on if the irrigation water can sustain the community until the new well is drilled and its production capacity is determined.

If they do require water from Big Sky Water and Sewer, a district fire hydrant will transport water through a hose into a Firelight hydrant and be used to charge their system, for a bulk rate of $10 per 1,000 gallons. When the district has surplus water, as it does currently, it can sell it to entities outside the district, an arrangement it has with the Yellowstone Club.

While the board seemed amenable to temporarily helping out their neighbor in need, Jim Muscat, Big Sky Sewer and Water District superintendent, emphasized that a surplus today does not mean a surplus tomorrow, and the priority will always be serving the district first.

Another option kicked around during this recent, and previous meetings, is the potential for the Firelight development to be annexed into the district and permanently merge with its system.

But, Edwards said, that possibility is a long way off and only speculation at this time.

The next meeting of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District is July 17 at 8 a.m. in the BSWSD office.