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Every Drop Counts: An expanded Canyon Sewer District leads to a healthier watershed

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Spring sunshine spotlights the Gallatin in all its glory. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GALLATIN RIVER TASK FORCE

By Marne Hayes EBS COLUMNIST

Roughly a half decade ago, Big Sky community stakeholders and Gallatin River enthusiasts came together to  identify what “sustainability” looks like for the Upper Gallatin River and the surrounding watershed tributaries.  This 18-month long collaborative process lead to the creation of the Gallatin River Task Force’s Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan (BSSWSP): a blueprint to protect our Gallatin River fishery, maintain the river’s ecological integrity, and establish a resilient water supply in the face of climate change, high river use, and population growth. 

This plan is not the first of its kind. Many communities have endeavored to evaluate a watershed, identify solutions and proactively execute a plan that creates a healthier river system by encouraging good stewardship practices, mindful water conservation, and environmental considerations. The one key element that makes the plan different is in its vision, and execution. “I’ve seen fancier plans with similar visions of ‘sustainability”, says WGM’s Mace Mangold, who has been involved in the canyon district planning, “but Big Sky’s ability to build and support and then fund and implement projects is extremely rare.”

As a community-based, collaborative approach to building a unified vision for future Big Sky water resource management, the plan aims to maintain and enhance a healthy river system in the community while also identifying sustainable solutions for the community water supply and wastewater treatment challenges.

One key result from the plan is the creation of the Gallatin Canyon Water and Sewer District,(Canyon District), a notable example of the Big Sky community executing the vision for a healthier river watershed. Groundwater pollution from failing septic systems is not unique to just the Gallatin Canyon. There are hundreds of these current and potential polluting pockets of concentrated septics throughout our state. Thousands throughout our nation. Big Sky, however, is one of the only communities that proactively took this step to protect watershed health. 

The motivation, and the intent, is to swiftly and accurately put into place nearly five miles of sewer main along Highway 191 and throughout the canyon corridor, effectively retiring old septic systems that present notable human and health risks. A central  sewer system introduces several significant benefits, not the least of which is better treatment and management of community wastewater, and the added benefit of that having a positive long-term impact on recurring algae blooms in the Gallatin.

This project still has hurdles to clear, and true success ultimately relies on the community. If the goal is to measurably improve and protect the Gallatin River water quality, the Canyon District will need to expand its boundary. If only a fraction of the Gallatin Canyon area is committed to central collection and treatment, then only a fraction of the problem is addressed.

Continued community support and commitment through initiatives like 1% for Infrastructure (the initiative approved by Big Sky Resort Tax district voters, which commits 1% of collected resort tax to be dedicated to public infrastructure projects) is ultimately critical to maintaining project momentum and affordability. The Canyon District is committed to addressing additional community needs, including the Big Sky Housing Trust’s goal to increase housing opportunities, the Big Sky Chamber’s focus on local business needs, and the School District’s ability to solidify their water and wastewater needs for the foreseeable future. It truly takes a village, or in this case, community buy-in that looks at fundamental needs, solutions, and collaboration on how to execute.

Building off the momentum of the years of monitoring and understanding the needs of the river, the Gallatin River Task Force is asking for community buy-in.  The potential benefits of an expanded sewer district are exponential, and finalizing steps to increase the Canyon Sewer District Boundary is an essential step in driving a healthier Gallatin River corridor now, and in the future.   For more information visit www.gallatincanyonwsd.com

Marne Hayes is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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