By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – When the mercury dips into single digits and humidity is low, snowmaking is at its best. Water is pumped into large snow guns where a nozzle restricts the flow to create small water droplets. These drops of water vary in size, and as compressed air forces the water through the nozzle, the smallest drops instantly freeze into tiny ice particles, which mix with the larger droplets to create snow crystals. In a matter of seconds, millions of crystals fall to the ground, accumulating as snow.

While snowmaking remains an important tool for establishing a skiable base layer across many of the resort slopes in Big Sky, this air and water technology could come to play a significant role in the community’s disposal of wastewater.

Currently, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District operates as a zero-river-discharge facility, meaning that treated wastewater is not released directly into any nearby streams. Instead, the bulk of wastewater is stored and released via irrigation at the Big Sky Resort, Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and Moonlight Basin golf courses. However, with burgeoning growth, the district is approaching its disposal capacity, and it could hit its upper disposal limit as early as 2022.

Snowmaking was identified as a priority option for wastewater disposal in the Big Sky Area Watershed Stewardship Plan released in January 2018, and since then, Big Sky Resort—which is also responsible for current snowmaking operations at Spanish Peaks and Moonlight—and the Yellowstone Club have been in conversation with the district to explore wastewater snowmaking options.

According to the watershed stewardship plan, the existing storage pond at the Yellowstone Club, which receives water from both BSWSD and Yellowstone Club wastewater treatment facilities, could be utilized for snowmaking on Eglise Ridge. The recently constructed pond at Spanish Peaks, which receives treated wastewater from BSWSD, could be utilized for snowmaking at Big Sky Resort, while wastewater from Moonlight Basin’s treatment facilities could provide for snowmaking on ski terrain in the Jack Creek watershed.

Turning effluent into snow—sometimes called “snowfluent”—has been on the horizon for some time, according to Mike DuCuennois, the Yellowstone Club’s vice president of development and a member of the BSWSD board. He referred to a pilot program that the Big Sky Wastewater Solutions Forum launched in 2011, when the club blew 1 million gallons of snow made from effluent in order to test the impacts to groundwater by looking at pH, total bacteria, solids and turbidity.

“We had favorable results,” he said, adding that skiers probably wouldn’t be able to tell a difference. “You wouldn’t even know it. There’s no smell, it’s white snow, it acts and feels like snow.

“You store [the snow] in the basin then end up increasing snowpack. That returns the water to the hydrological cycle,” he added. “What a great benefit it would be if we could get a second use out of our water making snow.”

While other resort communities have embraced effluent snowmaking, such as at Flagstaff, Arizona, and Sugarloaf Resort in Maine, Big Sky is challenged by the fact that it’s never been done in Montana. The process would require a surface water discharge permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and with a lack of precedent, terms and regulations will need to be established.

Currently, Yellowstone Club is working with a multi-department team from DEQ to establish these rules, and DuCuennois said he hopes the club will be able to apply for a permit in the next three months.

Ron Edwards, the Big Sky district’s general manager, said the district is still a long way out from applying for any permits. “We have no plans to apply for a snowmaking permit right now,” he said, adding that the district is focused on a new treatment facility first. “Yellowstone Club will be ahead of us, which I think is a good thing because it could pave the way.”

He also said snowmaking will be an extensive partnership between the district and the resorts. “Our part would be getting water to a pond,” he said. “Then Big Sky Resort or Spanish Peaks would be responsible for snowmaking.”

To fully implement reused water snowmaking, additional ponds and pipelines would need to be installed, but Edwards said that won’t happen until the permitting process is complete.

During a Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum meeting in October 2017, many stakeholders expressed their support, though several questioned whether the resort would use energy and resources to make snow with treated effluent even when Big Sky has a robust snowpack.

“We currently snow-make with about 100 million gallons of water, but we could snow-make with 300 million gallons of water,” said Taylor Middleton, Big Sky Resort’s general manager, during a September 2017 forum meeting. “If you really got after it up in the bowl, you might be able to make a glacier up there.”

Brian Wheeler, the resort’s director of real estate and development and a BSWSD board member, said Big Sky Resort will certainly work to investigate this option. “We think it is a tremendous opportunity, but it has to be done properly with monitoring and treatment levels,” he said in a recent interview. “We absolutely need to explore it.”

According to Jon Olsen, the director of development and engineering at Lone Mountain Land Company, both Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks also support reused water snowmaking as a possibility, though snowmaking operations are overseen by Big Sky Resort.