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Canyon takes hard look at water and sewer solutions

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Wastewater treatment systems throughout the Gallatin Canyon can pose threats to the river and public water supply, especially individual septic systems that are not maintained well. This screenshot comes from a searchable map on the Gallatin City-County Environmental Health Services website and is not exhaustive.

By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Residents of Gallatin Canyon and members of various local organizations met at Buck’s T-4 Lodge on Jan. 23 to dialogue about water resources in the Gallatin Canyon and to gauge interest in collaborative solutions.

David O’Connor, a Buck’s T-4 owner and resident of Ramshorn View Estates in the canyon, opened the meeting, noting that it acted as the first instance of canyon stakeholders gathering to discuss water and sewer challenges.

“There are a tremendous [number] of things to think about if the canyon is to look at water in a holistic kind of way,” O’Connor said. “Keep an open mind. This is the beginning of what could be a very long process.”

Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force and a Ramshorn resident, said addressing the multitude of Big Sky septic systems—which don’t treat wastewater to as high a quality as public wastewater treatment systems, contributing to nutrient loading in the river—was a core driver for calling the meeting. It was also a high priority of the Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan because nutrient loading can lead to algal blooms such as those the Gallatin weathered in 2018.

Representatives from the Gallatin Local Water Quality District, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Gallatin Health Department, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Gallatin Planning Department also presented at the meeting, most attending virtually from Bozeman on account of the day’s heavy snowfall.

Among other information, the presentations revealed that little regulation on individual wastewater treatment systems and private domestic wells leave water supply and the river vulnerable to unconscious contamination by nitrates, posing environmental and health threats as development in Big Sky continues. Public water and sewer treatment systems, which are stringently regulated, were a favored alternative.

Resort tax board Vice Chair Steve Johnson was the first to air a potential course of action concerning centralized wastewater management in the canyon.

“As a first step here in the canyon, you could build a sewer trunk and a healthy lift station and pump it up to [BSWSD’s] expanded plant for treatment for a while,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, you might need to build a secondary treatment facility down here, but as development proceeds.”

BSWSD General Manager Ron Edwards said that connecting to the district would not necessarily require the canyon becoming part of the district.

The district conducted a feasibility study in 2008 to determine the cost of potentially “sewering” the canyon. According to Edwards and based on the zoning in the canyon, at full build out approximately 1 million gallons per day of wastewater load would be pumped uphill to the district, costing about $20 million in 2008, $23.1 million in 2019 currency after inflation.

Edwards said a logical outcome for the issue at hand mirrored that of Gallatin Gateway, which became its own county water and sewer district a decade ago.

Like the canyon, Gallatin Gateway residents operated on private wells and septic systems but were dealing with water contamination, according to Edwards. Gallatin Gateway Water and Sewer District was born in 2009 and, although the process was lengthy, eventually connected to the Four Corners Water and Sewer system through an interlocal agreement.

“It was a huge process, but I would argue that the end result has been really good for Gateway,” said Ashley Kroon of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “This has greatly improved not only environmental quality—we’re right next to the Gallatin River—but also the drinking water quality.”

Edwards said that the petition-driven process of becoming a water and sewer district is cheap and, once completed, afforded many powers such as bonding and eminent domain capabilities. The process can get complicated because those with significant capital investment in their septic systems will be less inclined to vote for a bond to connect to a central sewer system, Edwards said, adding that a treatment plant won’t pay for itself unless nearly everyone within the district boundaries connects to it.

“If we continue with the status quo, and as development occurs with what zoning conditions are like in the canyon, I’m guessing that public water supply nitrate values are going to continue to increase over time,” said Tammy Swinney, a representative with Gallatin Local Water Quality District, a county entity focused on water resources education and water quality monitoring.

Those attending the meeting concluded that next steps include gathering neighbors and other stakeholders for a follow-up meeting sometime in March to determine wider interest.

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