Dec. 6 town hall meeting will highlight challenges, process

By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – The sustainable use of Big Sky’s water resources has proven to be a tough nut to crack.

The water and sewer district board wrangles with storage and discharge issues at nearly every monthly meeting; conservation efforts—including a potential Wild and Scenic designation for the Gallatin River—are alive and well; and it appears a water supply shortage in this semi-arid area is coming down the pike as the community grows.

A forum of stakeholders addressing this trio of issues has met four times since late June to hash out a plan for Big Sky’s water resources. They come from Big Sky, Bozeman, Ennis and Helena, and represent 35 different organizations.

On Dec. 6, community members will have a chance to learn about the group’s efforts—and weigh in on options being considered—at a town hall meeting held at Buck’s T-4 from 4-6 p.m.

Lone Mountain Land Company and the Yellowstone Club paid $7,500 each to get the forum off the ground by funding the first stage of the process—interviewing stakeholders to obtain clarity on Big Sky’s water issues and gauge their willingness to participate—but according to Bozeman-based forum facilitator Karen Filipovich, the process isn’t developer-driven.

“It isn’t all about development,” Filipovich said. “People … from business to conservation to government interests, to even downstream interests—said, ‘Look, we need to deal with these resources holistically,’ and I think that’s the opposite of a very narrow agenda.”

The collaboration is a revival of a previous effort called the Wastewater Solutions Forum that dissolved in 2012. Funding for the second stage of the new water solutions group—information gathering and sharing, and consensus building—was provided by Gallatin and Madison counties, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, and a Resort Tax Board appropriation awarded to Gallatin River Task Force for the project.

Stakeholders represented include business interests, conservation organizations and government agency staffers. A full list of stakeholders is posted on GRTF’s website along with forum meeting notes and videos of prior presentations.

Stephanie Lynn, GRTF’s education and communications coordinator, said meeting attendance has been strong, even among members of the public who aren’t officially part of the forum. “I think if any more people came, we’d probably outgrow the water and sewer district conference room,” Lynn said.

About 45 people attended the last informational session, a Nov. 3 meeting on wastewater treatment and discharge. Representatives from the water and sewer District, Lone Mountain Land Company, the Yellowstone Club, the Gallatin City-County Health Department, and the Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Quality Division presented on challenges surrounding wastewater treatment in Big Sky.

“Wastewater treatment and disposal is a hot-button topic for the community,” Lynn said. “I was very impressed with the stakeholders’ willingness to be open-minded at the meeting a few weeks ago, but I expect strong views from the public in December about that topic in particular,” Lynn said, referencing the Dec. 6 town hall meeting.

After providing a brief history of wastewater treatment in Big Sky and discussing some challenges with the current system—especially in light of projected growth—the presenters on Nov. 3 highlighted some potential solutions and answered stakeholder questions.

Big Sky Water and Sewer District General Manager Ron Edwards briefly touched on some options that have been considered: expanding treated effluent irrigation; groundwater discharge, which would involve engineered drain fields; using treated effluent for snowmaking, which would likely require a surface discharge permit; discharge into the Gallatin River, which would also require a DEQ permit; small, decentralized treatment facilities; and a combination of the above approaches.

“Maybe there’s [other solutions] out there that maybe we haven’t looked at,” Edwards added. “That’s part of this process.”

Now that the forum is working off a common set of information, the next step of the process is to set priorities and gain consensus on the three focus areas—ecological health of local river systems, water quality and availability, and wastewater treatment and discharge—so the stakeholders can form one plan for the community, Filipovich said. “Think of [it] as a business plan for water resources.”

Although the project is collaborative and geared toward identifying an agreed-upon path forward, the forum’s decision won’t result in a binding resolution. Lynn said identified solutions would have to fit within Montana’s existing legal framework, and state agencies like the DEQ and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would handle enforcement if needed.

Filipovich said if all goes as planned, the forum will have a strategy for water resources in place by December 2017.