By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – The Big Sky Water and Sewer District board may amend a 2001 agreement between the Yellowstone Club and the district, but a handful of unknowns need to be clarified before the board moves forward.
The agreement, which was signed when Tim Blixseth was heading up Yellowstone Club’s development, provided the club with something it needed at the time—access to potable water—in exchange for something the BSWSD needed—wastewater storage for a growing community.
A subcommittee of the BSWSD board met July 14 to discuss an amendment to the 62-page agreement, which has been prominent in board discussions in recent months due in part to the March wastewater pond spill at the club.
Mike DuCuennois, who sits on the BSWSD board and also serves as the Yellowstone Club’s vice president of development, clarified at the start of the meeting that he would be representing the club in the meeting and would abstain from voting on the matter as a BSWSD board member.
One of the unknowns involves Spanish Peaks Mountain Club—specifically whether or not a 14-million-gallon pond for wastewater storage and golf course irrigation would help the Yellowstone Club meet its obligation to store 140 million gallons of wastewater.
That pond has been designed but plans have not been submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality for approval.
Spanish Peaks’ rights and responsibilities relative to the agreement are unclear given its Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing in 2011. Ron Edwards, general manager of the BSWSD, said the district’s legal counsel found that the Spanish Peaks isn’t subject to the agreement due to the bankruptcy, but a representative from Spanish Peaks pointed out, “that’s one legal opinion.”
The Yellowstone Club pond, which has been operational post-spill since June, has 80 million gallons of storage when functioning at full capacity. The club designed a second pond adjacent to the first one, but DuCuennois wants assurance it would be used if built.
“If we’re going to create those infrastructure pieces, we want water in those pipes, right?” he said.
DuCuennois pointed out that the club has been irrigating its golf course with freshwater this summer because the district isn’t sending enough reclaimed water to the pond for the Yellowstone Club to draw it down given its mandate to keep 5,000 gallons in the pond.
According to BSWSD Board President Packy Cronin, the district doesn’t see much benefit from the agreement until the Yellowstone Club meets the upper limits of the agreed upon wastewater disposal—and that hasn’t happened yet.
“That’s what got the district to the table [in 2001]—160 million gallons of storage,” Cronin said.
A number of different arrangements to store and dispose the district’s wastewater were discussed, but there are uncertainties and complications surrounding each of them.
Golf course irrigation presents challenges because area courses don’t need water when the district is most in need of disposal—January and February, when skier visits peak. In the summer, golf courses call for water at the same time and sometimes there isn’t enough to go around.
Using wastewater in snowmaking presents a public relations challenge. Cronin said the public has come around on golfing on courses that are irrigated with wastewater and wondered aloud whether it would also come around on snowmaking with effluent given enough need for snow.
Other hurdles to using effluent for snowmaking include building pumps and pipes to deliver it to locations where it would be used, and a timing issue since snowmaking is typically full throttle in November and December—not January and February.
The board also discussed a discharge permit to the Gallatin River as a potential disposal option. The DEQ granted the BSWSD a permit in 1998, but the district was sued by Montana River Action and other environmental groups and never built the pipeline. Edwards said the district let the permit go in 2013.
Another unknown is the Big Sky Water Solutions Forum, which is working to find water conservation and wastewater solutions the community will support.
The group, which was initially funded with $15,000 from developers Lone Mountain Land Company and the Yellowstone Club, met with stakeholders up and down the valley this spring. DuCuennois said he would like the district’s decision to run concurrently with the forum’s efforts.
Even with a smoothed out agreement, DuCuennois pointed out, there are still water and sewer issues coming down the pike given Big Sky’s projected growth. “If [the agreement is] completely satisfied and everybody’s behaving like they’re supposed to, there’s another problem coming,” he said, referring to future demands on water and sewer infrastructure.
“If you don’t have a flow in, flow out scenario like Bozeman and every other city in America, basically you need to have ponds,” DuCuennois said.