By Margo Magnant EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Approximately 50 people attended a public meeting at the Big Sky Chapel Wednesday evening, where the recently released Big Sky Area Sustainable Water Stewardship Plan was presented to the community.

“It’s bold, its innovative, and extremely rare,” said Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director of American Rivers, of the efforts to produce the plan.

The culmination of 18 months of collaborative work, hosted by the Gallatin River Task Force, one key aspect of the plan involves addressing the community’s options for disposal of treated wastewater. Currently, both the Big Sky Resort and Yellowstone Club golf courses utilize treated effluent for irrigation, and plans are in place for Spanish Peaks Mountain Club join them later this year.

The plan’s recommendations include expanding these options to include snowmaking.

Rich Chandler, the environmental manager at the Yellowstone Club, confirmed that the private ski resort is “definitely pursuing” a snowmaking program that uses treated effluent. After a promising pilot test during the 2011-2012 ski season, and with the renewed momentum as a result of the Big Sky Water Solutions Forum effort, it’s now up to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to establish permitting regulations.

“No one has done it before in Montana,” Chandler said, although similar programs are already in place at a handful of resorts across the U.S.

Kristin Gardner, the executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, explained that DEQ was one of 35 stakeholders in the process. “The discussions have already started, but a lot still needs to be determined,” she said.

The plan also calls for the treatment of wastewater to “the limits of technology,” and Ron Edwards, the general manager of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, announced that earlier this month his board finalized a $360,297 contract with engineering firm AE2S for a treatment facility upgrade plan to begin that process.

In addition to wastewater treatment and reuse, other areas of focus for the 177-page plan include ecological health of the river systems and water supply and availability. “The water’s got to come from somewhere, and at some rate of groundwater withdrawal, you start de-watering these streams,” explained Mike Richter of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, while presenting the plan’s recommendations to address future water supply and availability concerns. Richter is also a Gallatin River Task Force board member.

According to the plan, however, stakeholders were “unable to reach consensus” on the topic of directly discharging treated wastewater effluent into the river systems. Currently, Big Sky’s treated wastewater that is not utilized for area golf course irrigation is stored in the Meadow Village storage ponds along Lone Mountain Trail, which are nearing capacity.

Bosse explained at the meeting that several of Big Sky’s peer mountain resort communities such as Jackson Hole, Sun Valley and Aspen discharge between 3-5 million gallons per day, including into the Snake River outside of Jackson, a federally recognized Wild and Scenic River. Not exploring alternative options, such as snowmaking, “is like encouraging your child to be a C student,” Bosse said. “Not a single community regrets taking proactive steps to protect water resources.”

Moving forward, securing funding and developing organizational framework for the plan’s implementation is the next step of the process, and Gardner offered a collaborative vision for that important phase as well. The cost of the plan’s implementation is estimated to top $1 million over the next decade. While all recommendations of the plan have significant funding requirements, the bulk of the estimated expenses lie in the area of wastewater treatment and reuse.

“Now we really need to put a lot of effort into making sure this plan comes to fruition and isn’t just another book on the shelf,” she said.

Visit http://www.gallatinrivertaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/BSSWS-Sustainable-Watershed-Plan-012618_FINAL-with-appendices.pdf to read the full Big Sky Area Sustainable Water Stewardship Plan.