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Gallatin County Commission approves formation of new water and sewer district

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The Canyon Area Feasibility Study identified potential borders for the new district, as seen in the light and dark blue areas, called phase 1A and 1 B. The formation of a new sewer district is a key first step in reducing nutrient loading in the Gallatin River. MAP COURTESY OF WGM GROUP

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – The Gallatin County Commission voted unanimously to approve a petition for the formation of a new Gallatin Canyon water and sewer district at a Dec. 29 meeting. 

The approval is in response to a petition filed by a cohort of four landowners, the Conoco, Mindy Cummings, Scott Altman and Lone Mountain Land Company, in the Gallatin Canyon area. The county received the petition on Oct. 29, it was certified by the county on Dec. 17, and approved mere days before the new year. 

It was essential that the petition was approved before the new year, according to Altman, who spearheaded the petition effort. In order to receive funding for the new district from the Big Sky Resort Area District, the new district had to be formed by the end of 2020. 

The idea to create a new water and sewer district has floated around for years, and the effort involved parties from several different corners. 

In addition to Altman and the other landowners advocating the petition to the county, the effort was supported by Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force; the Canyon Area Feasibility Study completed by the GRTF and prepared by WGM Group; Steve Johnson, the Secretary and Treasurer of the Big Sky Resort Area District Board; and Ron Edwards, general manager of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District.

In 2016, the GRTF posted a collaborative watershed planning effort which articulated a main priority of addressing septic systems in the Gallatin Canyon. A committee was formed and decided that the first step to address the septic systems was the Canyon Area Feasibility Study, which analyzed the possibility of installing wastewater infrastructure in the canyon as well as proposed available options for execution. 

The study was funded though resort tax and was completed in 2019. There were two main options considered according to Gardner: one was to have all wastewater treated centrally in the canyon and the second was to pipe the water up to the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District for treatment at their facility.

Since septic systems, which the canyon currently uses, do not treat wastewater to the same quality as central systems, according to Gardner, sewer infrastructure in the canyon area will be a big step forward in protecting the Gallatin River.

“Providing central sewer to the canyon will significantly reduce the nutrient loads to the river, which is a big issue for us because of recent algae blooms and we’ve seen some groundwater that’s been steadily increasing in nutrients, which is also a public health threat,” Gardner said.

Moving forward, the GRTF will remain involved in an advisory capacity with the new water and sewer district, mainly, to help in outreach efforts and writing grants.

In the meantime, the new water and sewer district has access to the funding promised by BSRAD.

In 2020 when the 1 percent for infrastructure was passed, the money was earmarked for two purposes, according to Johnson. The first purpose was to fund the upgrade to the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District wastewater treatment plant. The second specified use for the money, approved by Big Sky voters, was to put a new Canyon water and sewer district in place. 

“The authorization of the funding was contingent upon the formation of this district,” said Johnson.  “That funding will now be made available for their use to put this into operation.”

The first step, now that the county has approved the petition, is to be officially recognized by the Montana Secretary of State, according to Altman. He said they will be working with Eric Semerad of the Gallatin County Planning and Zoning Commission to get an official designation. Once that approval comes through, the new district can elect leadership and begin applying for grants as a public entity. 

For now, the district remains small, including only the four landowners who signed the petition—this unanimous majority that made it easy for the county commission to approve the district. However, the district will welcome anyone in the resort tax area that wants to join. Eventually, the hope is to expand the new district south all the way down to include the Big Sky School District property. 

“Moving forward we will have to get our board of directors together and start negotiating with Big Sky water and sewer for rates and such,” Altman said. “Then, we’ll go from there and decide how we can expand and how we can create service to people within the closest timeframe possible.”

It is likely that new infrastructure for the canyon water and sewer district will not be put into place until after the upgrade to the current plant is finished, according to Altman. However, the new district can be proactive in the meantime. 

“We’ll have an engineer on board that will start looking at what is feasible for a first phase [as defined by the study], and what it would take to make that happen,” Altman said. “Then we can go to funding sources and start to look at, what would phase one cost and where we can find the money to build the infrastructure, so that we can start bringing people on board and abandoning their old systems and hook into the new system.”

There is still a long way to go before the new infrastructure is in place, but Edwards with the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District was happy that there will be a new organization with the authority to help solve Big Sky’s infrastructure issues. 

“It’s good news from my standpoint,” Edwards said. “Having worked for a county water and sewer district that has done a lot of good infrastructure work for a long time, I know what they’re capable of. I think one of the things we struggle with—being unincorporated—is who’s going to take on these big infrastructure projects. If you’re not a city or town, then a county water and sewer district makes the most sense.”

The new Gallatin Canyon water and sewer district will have the authority to address some of Big Sky’s wastewater treatment issues and to be good stewards of protecting the health of the Gallatin River.

As Gardner pointed out, the formation of the new water and sewer district is a proactive step spurred by concerns over the health of the Gallatin River; no one forced the creation of this new district.

“I think that’s something that’s unique and a positive step for the Big Sky community,” she said. “This was a collaboration between a bunch of different entities, and most of the time, water and sewer districts are formed because people are forced to form them, and that was not the case. This was really about proactive watershed protection.”

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