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Every Drop Counts: Wastewater reuse and water resiliency

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Water supply or threats to water supply have been topping the headlines lately, not just here in Big Sky, but in many places across the west, and the country. Concerns include water shortages, compromised water, depleted water systems, and threats to municipal and regional water sources from drought and other factors. In addressing challenges that come with less rainfall, decreased snowpack, shorter and earlier spring runoff and increased scarcity of natural groundwater sources, water reuse is a big part of the solution. 

A resilient water supply depends on a combination of water conservation and strategic water reuse. Reuse also takes into consideration groundwater recharge, or the relationship of snowpack and precipitation to recharging our aquifers. But more and more, reuse is becoming a leading conventional solution, and with good reason.  

In many areas of the U.S. and internationally, water reuse (also commonly known as water recycling or water reclamation) is well-established as the practice of reclaiming water from a variety of sources, treating it to a high quality, and reusing it for beneficial purposes that solve a variety of water source issues. It can provide alternate sources for potable and non-potable drinking water supplies, enhance water reliability, sustainability and resilience, as well as supplement streamflow. 

Unfortunately, water reuse still faces barriers, even though it presents major opportunities to enhance sustainability and efficient uses of water resources that support both the quality and quantity of existing water supplies.   

Wastewater recycling is nothing new, and more frequently, communities across the world are considering this as a more efficient and sustainable method of handling their water supplies and sources. Big Sky is among those communities currently practicing reuse, with irrigation of golf courses and public spaces coming from highly treated wastewater, and future plans to augment snowmaking through treated wastewater sources, bolstering the snowpack and providing solutions to our wastewater discharge challenges.   

With significant pressure on our water supply, the Big Sky Water and Sewer Wastewater Treatment plant upgrade is among the most significant steps forward in addressing capacity and reuse, and one that once up and running will be capable of treating roughly 910,000 gallons of municipal wastewater per day—a 50% increase from our current capacity.  The upgrades will produce effluent that contains 90% less bacteria, 99% less nitrogen, and 99% less phosphorus; much to the benefit of the Gallatin River Watershed.

The new facility will also allow for more beneficial reuse options like groundwater discharge, increased snowmaking, and exploring direct potable reuse (also known as DPR). Future opportunities that reuse water and apply creative discharge handling of our community wastewater offer different options of recycling water that augment the natural water cycle and which will benefit the overall hydrologic system.

Innovative ways of managing wastewater are used many places around the globe and are very much at play here in our own community. With a recent permit issued to the Yellowstone Club from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, we have expanded our ability to reuse as much wastewater as possible. These and future additional snowmaking capabilities will give the community an even greater outlet for reused water, improving snowpack and contributing to groundwater reserves.  

Reclaiming water and applying treatments that allow for beneficial uses like irrigation, groundwater recharge, snowmaking and direct potable reuse are among the leading ways to stretch water resiliency. Creative methods like these diversify community water supply portfolios to meet current and future needs that are on track to exhaust traditional water supply systems.

Undoubtedly, water reuse and conservation go hand in hand as water source solutions.  Conservation methods like the installation of low-flow plumbing fixtures and limits on irrigation-dependent landscaping are just a few methods already at play in many places like Big Sky. Newer methods like reusing water for snowmaking are gaining speed and support as well, largely because of the potential added value of reducing nutrient pollution and bolstering snowpack, adding to overall benefits to our community water supply. 

The bottom line is that there is a pressing need to identify sources of water for a variety of community uses, making sure that there is enough to replenish our rivers streams. Existing supplies are stretched and increasingly compromised by key elements related to drought, climate change, population growth; there’s just not enough water, and in turn, we are forced to think more creatively and strategically about how we replenish the sources to address the uses that are key to a community’s daily life.

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

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