By Gabrielle Gasser EBS Staff
BIG SKY – After six months of communications and document exchanges, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has approved Big Sky County Water and Sewer District documentation demonstrating the available capacity at the wastewater treatment plant.
DEQ sent a letter to Ron Edwards, the general manager of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, with their findings on the capacity of the treatment plant and with a proposal to institute a quarterly review system to continue proving capacity.
The water and sewer district board will meet this week to review the DEQ letter and craft a concurrence letter in response, confirming that the district accepts DEQ’s capacity findings and the quarterly review system.
Once the water and sewer district accepts the quarterly review system along with capacity numbers, the DEQ will resume reviewing Certificate of Subdivision Approval applications. The current understanding with DEQ, according to the district’s General Manager Ron Edwards, is that the district will not have to resubmit COSA applications that were under review before the pause.
Moving forward, the water and sewer district will be required to submit quarterly reports to DEQ to continue proving that they’re within the wastewater treatment plant’s available capacity. This system of reports will ensure that the district does not exceed its capacity before the new wastewater plant upgrade is complete in summer 2022, according to Terry Campbell, an environmental engineer for DEQ.
Edwards provided documentation on additional capacity commitments that are not yet connected, but those commitments will not exceed remaining available capacity, according to Campbell.
“I’ve been tracking permits and new connections since I’ve been here,” Edwards said. “I actually started doing the system back in 1996, so all this tracking we’ve been doing really proved useful for the work we did with DEQ.”
DEQ’s approval of the district’s capacity follows an earlier approval of a “deviation request,” which gave the water and sewer district permission to continue using its differing methodology of Single Family Equivalents to measure capacity.
The discrepancy between the metrics used by the district and DEQ to measure plant capacity in part led to the confusion requiring Big Sky to document its plant capacity.
Campbell said that DEQ allows Big Sky to use their SFE system because it makes sense for the community’s unique situation.
“It’s different than what our design standards call for but in Big Sky … they have such a low percent of occupancy compared to most residential communities,” Campbell said. “That’s hard for them to use a per capita basis for establishing flow so they use the single-family equivalency methodology.”
According to the DEQ letter Edwards received, “the remaining or available treatment capacity of your facility is approximately 100,000 gpd.”
That figure takes into account the commitments the district has made but not yet connected, which are equal to almost 49,000 gpd.
According to Edwards, DEQ found that Big Sky’s wastewater treatment plant’s capacity was slightly lower than what he had estimated. The district estimated its own available capacity was closer to 140,000 gpd, Edwards said, but noted that the numbers can change depending on what criteria is considered.
The water and sewer district is moving forward on the new wastewater treatment plant upgrade as scheduled, and will be sending out a bid advertisement in late November.
Initially, the plant upgrade was estimated to cost $35 million, Edwards said, but recently, in part due to high costs of concrete, that estimate has increased to $43 million. Funding for the project will partly come from Big Sky Resort Area District tax, which will pay for up to $27 million of the upgrade costs, according to Edwards.
At its Nov. 17 board meeting, the water and sewer district discussed funding streams for the project. Terry Smith, the financial officer with the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, estimated they would be able to cover the upgrade with internal funds through June 30 of 2021 before running into financing issues. This date serves as a six-month deadline for when the board needs to have more funding streams secured.
Previously, the board was talking with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation about obtaining funding through a State Revolving Fund. According to Smith, based on comments made by the board’s bond counsel, Dan Semmens of Dorsey & Whitney, the DNRC does not currently have the funds to support the wastewater plant upgrade.
The board will now look at a variety of banks to obtain a loan in a bond format to fund the project. Ideally, the board will start work on this immediately and have something secured within 90 days. If that deadline is not met, the water and sewer district does have the internal funds to keep the project moving forward until that June 30, 2021 deadline.