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Water Wisdom: One Water

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An integrated approach to secure the future of water in Big Sky

By Kristin Gardner EBS CONTRIBUTOR

Over the past year, sustainability initiatives have been gaining momentum across Big Sky. After recently participating in a two-day workshop on sustainable tourism and the inaugural meeting of the Big Sky Sustainability Committee, I have been ruminating on water sustainability in Big Sky. What does water sustainability look like for a growing mountain resort community, which greatly depends on the availability of water in all its forms? How we can we make water management decisions today without compromising the water needs for future generations?

I believe the answer lies within the holistic approach: One Water. One Water promotes managing water in ways that are in harmony with the natural flows of water through watersheds. One Water recognizes that all water has value—the water in our rivers, lakes and aquifers, as well as the water we drink, the water produced from wastewater treatment, and the water that runs off of our residential developments, trails and golf courses. These interconnected water resources can and should be managed carefully to maximize benefit to the entire watershed.

Examples of innovative water management solutions that maximize watershed benefit are becoming more prevalent across the United States. Soda Springs Mountain Resort was the first ski resort in California to make snow with highly treated wastewater effluent, which then recharges ground and surface water flows as the snow melts in the spring, thus preparing the ski resort for climate change. Austin Central Library in Austin, Texas, collects both rainwater and the water that drips off of air conditioning systems, and then uses that water to irrigate the library’s landscaping and to flush toilets.

Integrating natural and human-influenced water systems breaks from the traditional siloed approach of managing water supply, wastewater and stormwater. Instead, all of these urban water flows are recognized as potential resources to sustain our rivers and aquifers. Healthy rivers and aquifers depend on abundant clean water that is directly and indirectly affected by how we manage our urban water flows.

In Big Sky, we already have some examples of One Water approaches to water management. Wastewater effluent from the Big Sky Water and Sewer District and Yellowstone Club is used to irrigate our local golf courses and community park. Purple pipe, a special pipe that transports treated wastewater, is being installed in Town Center to irrigate residential and business developments. Instead of potable water being withdrawn from our aquifers for irrigation, that water remains in the ground to slowly replenish our rivers and drinking water supplies. It’s a win-win-win.

But, we could do better to fully embrace the idea of One Water. Our community is inherently connected to the water cycle. The snow we ski becomes the whitewater we float, the riffles we fish and the water we drink. We need to prioritize innovative solutions that meet the water needs of the river, our growing community and future generations.

Many of these solutions are outlined in the Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan. For this to come to fruition, we will all need to think outside of the box and beyond our own organizations and property boundaries when we consider water resource planning. Together, we can and must build a sustainable water future for Big Sky.

Kristin Gardner is the executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force.

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