By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – Amid litigation threats from developers and conservation groups, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District is pressing ahead with more engineering work to better hone the final cost of a treatment plant upgrade to meet the district’s growing flow and load demands.
During the Jan. 22 board meeting at the district office, BSWSD representatives shared plans to put $671,580 toward further engineering work by Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services (AE2S) of Bozeman. The firm will design 50 percent of the plant to refine and narrow the final cost by the end of May. The preliminary cost estimate when the district unveiled the upgrade in November was $21.7 million.
Upgrade plans received criticism from several Bozeman conservation groups concerned with the health of the Gallatin River. A letter drafted by representatives from Montana Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper urged the district to gather a wider scope of information, and to consider a timeframe closer to 40 years in terms of technology and thinking in order to safeguard the Gallatin.
Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, said at the meeting that Big Sky needs to be a “model mountain community,” as was outlined in the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum completed early in 2018, which involved 36 stakeholders from organizations throughout the community to determine how to steward the health of the Gallatin while allowing Big Sky to grow and thrive as a community.
Guy Alsentzer, the Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, explained in a Jan. 24 interview that the decisions the district makes today will have a disproportionate effect on local waterway health, emphasizing the importance of getting the whole picture before making any decision.
“The true golden goose for this community are our healthy landscapes and healthy waterways, and we need to keep them that way,” Alsentzer said. “Any decision upgrading the largest provider of wastewater [treatment] in Big Sky needs to prioritize the health of the environment over the bottom line.”
Although opinions seemed divergent at the outset of the meeting, the objectives of the upgrade appeared to align with major goals of the conservation groups.
“Phase one of what we’re working on is in line with the environmental groups and it does meet the recommendations of the sustainable solutions forum,” said BSWD General Manager Ron Edwards in a Jan. 24 phone interview; he, along with the representatives from each conservation group present at the meeting, participated in the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum.
“And cost does matter, the sky isn’t the limit on these kinds of projects,” Edwards said. “What we’re proposing is an expensive upgrade.”
Phase one of the upgrade would approximately double the treatment capacity of the facility, employing a treatment technology known as membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology—which is both high-tech and compact, maximizing capacity within the small footprint of land the district owns—and would raise the quality of effluent to an A-1 DEQ classification, according to AE2S engineer Scott Buecker.
This elevated quality would make way for a diverse set of effluent disposal options during the second phase of the upgrade, which could include snowmaking, subsurface discharge that replenishes the aquifers from which drinking water is currently drawn, and direct discharge to the main stem of the Gallatin River in emergency scenarios.
“I think that just is a slam dunk and if we can move on from that and separate phase one from all this other discussion, that would be beneficial for everyone,” Buecker said at the meeting.
The conservation parties and the district were in agreement that MBR treatment technology was the best next step. The board created a subcommittee to talk through options with the conservation groups going forward, but made it clear that the aggressive increases of Big Sky’s flow and load demands require continuing with the current upgrade plan.
Another topic of discussion at the meeting was a December letter with a thinly veiled litigation threat that Spanish Peaks Mountain Club wrote requesting more water and sewer capacity than their current allotment, which would potentially increase the club’s development capacity.
In 2001, the district allotted Spanish Peaks 1,000 SFEs and up to 42 million gallons of flow per year, the latter of which would be binding, according to Edwards. In November, the club requested additional SFEs to further expand development plans, though they have not fully built out their current allotment. At the club’s current flow per SFE, Spanish Peaks expects to maintain flows below the 42-million-gallon limit even with the additional SFEs. The board was hesitant, not wanting to overbook their flow capacity.
As has been the case in the past several BSWD board meetings, resort tax members also pushed the district to factor into their expansion providing water and sewer services to Gallatin Canyon. The board maintained that their responsibility is to ratepayers within the district boundaries. The treatment plant upgrade does not factor in the canyon, Edwards said.
However, the following day, stakeholders met to discuss water resources in the canyon.
In other news, the 10-year lease for the Big Sky Search and Rescue building—which is on BSWSD property—is also up. As the board discussed renewing the lease for another decade, they considered adding a provision that would require the building to connect to sewer on Search and Rescue’s dime in the next 3-5 years; a holding tank currently serves the building.