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Firelight Meadows, Water and Sewer District report early findings, talk next steps

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One of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District No. 363 storage ponds. Firelight Meadows and the water and sewer district are discussing a possible annexation that could benefit both parties. PHOTO BY BRANDON WALKER

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Last fall, Firelight Meadows and the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District No. 363 discussed the possibility of annexing Firelight Meadows into the water and sewer district. This proposition could take a step further at an Aug. 11 meeting when the Firelight Homeowners Association will host the water and sewer district to present details of early studies of groundwater and the possibility of annexation.

Constructed in 2003, Firelight Meadows was originally catered for second home owners who were visiting while on vacation. Nearly 20 years later, the Firelights are host to a mix of year-round residents as well as vacationers. Due to increased usage as well as an uptick in biologic materials in its wastewater, Firelight Meadows wastewater treatment center has reached its max capacity, according to Firelight Meadows HOA President Matt Walker

“Now, you know so many of these units are set up as rentals, and so whether that’s long term or short term they’re both adding a lot more usage to our infrastructure than kind of what Firelight was originally designed for,” Walker said.

The annexation is thought to be beneficial for both parties as Firelight Meadows residents would see a reduction in their current water and sewer rates. Additionally, Firelight Meadows wastewater effluent would be treated to a higher water quality level than their current type two wastewater system allows, while also receiving treated effluent from the water and sewer district for irrigation purposes. Currently, Firelight Meadows utilizes clean water for irrigation.

In return, the water and sewer district hopes Firelight Meadows could handle year-round wastewater effluent discharge into their two on site drain fields, helping to alleviate increasing wastewater quantities as the community grows. 

“It gets us into a very stable disposal option, [that’s] not weather dependent like we currently are with all this irrigation we do,” said water and sewer district General Manager Ron Edwards.

If annexed into the water and sewer district, Firelight Meadows would consume roughly 300 single family equivalents or SFE’s, according to Edwards. He said the annexation wouldn’t be possible if not for the expanded capacity generated by the construction of the new Water Resource Recovery Facility, scheduled to be completed in 2022.

“This doesn’t work without the new plant really, so that’s all part of it,” he said.

West Fork Utilities, a private utility company based in Bozeman, owns and operates the wastewater treatment building and equipment on Firelight Meadows property.

The wastewater effluent at Firelight Meadows is currently not compliant with Montana Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) water quality treatment standards, Walker said. He continued to say that West Fork Utilities is working to once again become compliant with DEQ standards.

Between 2018 and 2019 Firelight Meadows installed water flow meters on all housing units within the complex to monitor water usage of each. Prior to installation of the meters, Firelight Meadows residents paid a flat rate for water and sewer, whereas now rates are determined based on usage.

Walker said that the meters were requested by DEQ as Firelight Meadows works to become compliant once again. Walker added that usage has nearly quadrupled because of high occupancy rates among other reasons.

Annexation into the water and sewer district would be another means to alleviate the compliance problem. 

The water and sewer district contracted Bozeman engineering and consulting company, AE2S, to carry out groundwater studies at Firelight Meadows. AE2S then employed sub consultant Western Groundwater Services who began the study in April. 

“The recent work I did kind of identified there appears to be treatment underground and so it basically brought that to light and that’s what spawned this monitoring program to further evaluate to what extent that treatment’s actually occurring,” said Western Groundwater Services Owner Mark Cunnane.

Cunnane utilized reported data from Firelight Meadows to translate what the water and sewer district could discharge into the drain fields at Firelight Meadows without increasing nitrogen levels based on their higher water treatment quality.  

“That discharge I think is favorable,” Cunnane said. “But we’ve got to do this other testing to see you know what kind of natural treatment that [Firelight Meadows] is getting in the ground below their drain fields.”

If both parties decide to move forward, Cunnane said the next agenda item would be determining the amount of nitrogen that the Firelight Meadows wastewater plant adds into the groundwater each day by utilizing monitoring wells. 

If the results show promise in allowing the water and sewer district to discharge wastewater at Firelight Meadows, Cunnane will then examine the exact discharge capacity that the drain fields are capable of handling. He also said that 2022 or 2023 is the earliest that any form of construction would begin, after the completion of the new WRRF. 

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