By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – After nearly a year of meeting regularly, the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum is closing in on goals and objectives intended to guide the future use of Big Sky’s water resources.

The forum has agreed on a vision statement—“to be a model mountain community by protecting and improving water resources, sustaining ecological health of the watersheds and supporting a vibrant local economy”—and has nearly wrapped up overarching goals to carry out that vision.

Approximately 30 minutes into their June 15 meeting at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District office, the forum’s stakeholders separated into three smaller groups to dive into three primary areas of focus: water supply and availability, ecological health of local rivers, and wastewater treatment and reuse. 

In the forum’s early stages, the latter category was dubbed “wastewater treatment and discharge,” and the language change could reflect a shift in the group’s discourse. One stakeholder noted that Israel reuses 84 percent of their water and “wastewater” is not part of the water resource vernacular there. 

Karen Filipovich, the Bozeman-based facilitator who’s been guiding the forum’s efforts with watershed scientist Jeff Dunn gave each group brief instructions and periodically checked in to keep them on track as they dug into their respective topics. 

The group meeting in the boardroom to address water supply and availability discussed language that could be helpful in securing future financial support, with climate variability and resilience making the cut for identified objectives. They spoke about a need for real-time monitoring and predictive forecasting to determine the quantity of available water, both underground in aquifers and aboveground in the form of snowpack.

The group addressing ecological health agreed on a goal centering on watershed stewardship that includes both human activities and natural processes to “maintain and enhance stream riparian and wetland conditions and connections.” 

Filipovich said that group also identified monitoring as an important objective. “I think what they’re doing is really exciting because they’re trying to basically set standards for ecological health,” she said, adding that such standards could include riparian and wetland conditions, and potentially aquatic life as well.

The wastewater group had a lively discussion about everything from the efficacy of bioengineered wetlands to the impact of pharmaceuticals in the watershed. “We’re not as close to solutions on [wastewater treatment] because we’re still trying to figure out how to … address those future capacity needs and what exactly the target is to ensure that there’s never going to be any damage to the river system,” Filipovich said.

The mood in the wastewater group was cooperative, with representatives from the Yellowstone Club, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District and Bozeman-based conservation nonprofit Upper Missouri Waterkeeper speaking frankly and even congenially with one another. 

“[Stakeholders] realize that regardless of whether they’re wearing the developer hat or the conservationist hat or the agency hat, everyone really loves the rivers of Big Sky and really wants to see them stay clean and healthy,” Filipovich said.

“It’s not just about wastewater,” said Upper Missouri Waterkeeper founder Guy Alsentzer. “I think a lot of effort and time has been put into making sure that we’re being holistic in understanding the challenges as well as the opportunities.”

The stakeholders have been meeting regularly since last June, and they’re breaking for the summer. While the 36 stakeholders won’t meet as a group again until September, they’ve been tasked with taking the conversations that have largely taken place in the Big Sky Water and Sewer District boardroom to their communities this summer—be that in Big Sky, Bozeman, Belgrade, Ennis or Helena.

At the start of the meeting, multiple stakeholders discussed the need for greater community outreach to address the perception that the group is exclusive and doesn’t involve Big Sky residents.

Filipovich said the process is intended to be open and well attended. “It’s really important to have a community process that the community wants to do,” Filipovich said. “We’d love more public input.”

In the near-term, those steering the forum will draft a water resources plan. “We’re putting a skeleton [plan] together over the summer,” Filipovich said, adding that the following step will involve implementation. “That’s part of it, too—figuring out what happens once we have a plan. … Nobody wants it to be shelf art.”