By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – On the heels of its approval of Big Sky’s current wastewater treatment plant capacity, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality greenlighted the new water resource recovery facility project.
The Big Sky County Water and Sewer District received a letter from the DEQ on Dec. 14 outlining the wastewater treatment plant upgrade and expansion. Big Sky voters in May of 2020, approved a 1-percent resort tax increase, specifically earmarked for infrastructure, that will pay for up to 60 percent of the $43 million project.
“What that approval really means from DEQ is that [the water and sewer district] can begin construction of the new plans,” Terry Campbell, an environmental engineer with the DEQ said. “Prior to receiving that approval, it would have been illegal for them to begin construction activity.”
DEQ has been working with the district to review planning documents, a solicitation package and to procure a membrane filtration system necessary for the treatment of water in the new plant.
Several details remain to be ironed out, and construction isn’t slated to begin until spring of 2021. However, this latest approval is the final piece of the puzzle in the ongoing review and approval process that DEQ and the water and sewer district have been wading through.
The district in November sent out an advertisement for contractors interested in bidding for work on the treatment plant upgrade project and expects to award a contract in March of 2021. The bid period was initially set at six weeks, which would have originally ended the last week of December, but was recently extended to ten weeks, now ending on Jan. 29th, in order to account for the holidays.
Now that the district has approval from DEQ, construction can begin as early as April 2021 with an estimated completion date projected for summer of 2023.
Financing for the project is still in the works. One portion is expected to come from a State Revolving Fund and another could be funded though bonds.
The DEQ and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation jointly administer the SRF loan program, which was created for drinking water projects. But the SRF lacks adequate money to fund the entire project, and the district adjusted to consider other funding options such as a request for proposal.
“We’ve shifted our course on how we’re going to finance the project [and are] working with DA Davidson people to put an RFP together,” said Ron Edwards, general manager for the district, referring to the nationwide wealth management firm. “Basically, you put an RFP together, what the project is [and] what the needs are, and then you shop that around to see what kind of private money you can get.”
Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency provides a federal grant commitment of $6 or 7 million to the program. That money is supplemented by past loans that are recycled and infused back into the program, according to DEQ’s Campbell.
“We’ve never historically had a problem meeting all of the loan needs in the state, but we’ve had some huge projects in the last couple of years,” Campbell said. “We’re all of a sudden at a point now where that money is not going far enough to meet all of the loan needs and Big Sky’s timing, and the cost of this project is just such that we can’t do all of it.”
Despite the funding setback, the DEQ approval means that the water and sewer district is still on schedule and can now officially award a construction contract and break ground.
Waiting on state approval could have potentially stalled the project, but luckily that isn’t the case. “Since we just received a letter that’s good news,” Edwards said. “That means we’re back in with everything to keep going with our schedule.”