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Back 40: Water-conscious landscaping and irrigation

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By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

Big Sky has a long history of attracting visitors to the area during the winter time. But while Big Sky’s population sees a dramatic influx during the snowy months, water use is significantly higher in the summer.

Ron Edwards, general manager of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, estimates that water use increases seven to eight times in the summer. The reason for this, he said, is unnecessary landscape irrigation.

BSWSD and the Gallatin River Task Force have joined together in an effort to increase public awareness about water usage in the summer, and both say that there are many steps a homeowner can take to reduce the amount of water used for irrigation, while still maintaining an appealing landscape.

“You can still have the beautiful human landscapes that you take pride in, that also use water more efficiently,” said Emily Casey, water conservation coordinator for GRTF.


District Water Superintendent Jim Muscat said that many property owners are used to seeing green lawns around their homes.

“We’re a 7,000-foot high plain desert,” Muscat said. “You’re not going to have a Florida-looking lawn around here without pouring a crazy amount of water on it.”

Instead, Muscat said homeowners might be interested in xeriscape, a landscape design that requires little or no irrigation, or other maintenance.

Xeriscape integrates drought-tolerant plant species with rock landscaping and reduces lawn sizes in order to create water-efficient sites that are still attractive.

A major aspect of this kind of landscaping is overall design. Plants with similar water requirements should be located together and mulch can be used to hold moisture in the soil.

Native reclamation

Reintroducing native plants into your landscape can be an especially good way to reduce water use.

When you add native plant species to your outdoor environment, you are including plants already adapted to local conditions. This means that once established, native trees, shrubs, groundcover and grass will flourish without the use of extra fertilizer or irrigation. Native plants are also resistant to most local pests and diseases.

For Big Sky, plant species should be selected that are adapted to dry summers and are rated to a zone 3 hardiness. Some common native plants to the Gallatin Valley include bluebunch wheatgrass, sweetgrass and blue wildrye. Native flowers include lupine, arnica, aster, columbine and blue flax.

It’s important to note that for the first few years, any plant will require irrigation. But once established, native plants won’t need a high volume of water to survive and flourish.

Sprinkler systems

For many homeowners, an irrigation system is an integral part of the outdoor landscape. It is an easy tool for keeping plants watered and healthy throughout the season, and with several water-smart considerations, these systems can also help to conserve water.

The latest technology in landscape irrigation pairs rain sensing with advanced programming so that you can set water schedules that match the needs of specific plants. These controllers can use local weather reports to adapt watering schedules day to day, helping to eliminate overwatering issues.

GRTF offers a number of rebates for homeowners who install WaterSense irrigation systems. This includes weather-based controllers, rain sensors, and sprinkler heads and nozzles. Homeowners are also encouraged to do a spring outdoor audit and system checkup, which can be performed by local certified irrigation technicians.

District actions

While the above steps are active measures homeowners can take for water conservation, the BSWSD has several internal methods to encourage efficient water use.

“The more water we save in terms of irrigation, the more we can stretch the water,” Edwards said.

Muscat added to this, saying that in addition to increasing water demand as Big Sky develops, the area is in need of a water reserve in case of a wildfire. “I think we have to be hyperaware of having water in case of forest fire.”

The district imposes a tier-grade system for supplying water to its customers, whereby the cost per gallon increases once a household exceeds a given threshold. Muscat said this is an effort to reduce excessive water use.

Throughout the summer the district also adopts irrigation restrictions, which are routinely posted and can be found online.

For more information about the GRTF rebate program, visit To learn more about the BSWSD irrigation restrictions, visit

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