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Gallatin River Task Force works to restore Upper West Fork

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Story and photos by Jacob Osborne EBS Editorial Assistant

BIG SKY – Five years of testing determined that the Upper West Fork of the Gallatin River, and especially the section that runs downstream from the Big Sky Resort Golf Course, qualifies as an “impaired” water resource by Montana Department of Environmental Quality standards.

This month, the Gallatin River Task Force announced ambitious plans to repair the stream.

On July 21 the Montana DEQ ratified a $130,000 grant to allow GRTF to move forward with a major Upper West Fork restoration project, which is expected to take two to three years.

The initiative aims to increase riverside vegetation and fortify stream banks at 15 sites along the stretch of the river that runs between Two Moons and Little Coyote roads – essentially the length of the Big Sky Golf Course.

GRTF will also rely on more than $14,000 of resort tax from the Big Sky Resort Area District in the upcoming year as well as fieldwork by the golf course maintenance staff in order to carry out the plans.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act, Montana is required to identify waters too polluted or otherwise degraded to meet the state’s own water quality standards.

Between 2005 and 2010, the nonprofit Gallatin River Task Force – formerly the Blue Water Task Force – in collaboration

GRTF studies indicate that nitrogen from Big Sky wastewater is the Upper West Fork's most significant pollutant.

GRTF studies indicate that nitrogen from Big Sky wastewater is the Upper West Fork’s most significant pollutant.

with the Montana DEQ, conducted a series of environmental assessments in the Gallatin River watershed, and the Upper West Fork was found to contain concentrations of nitrogen and sediment that exceeded localized targets.

Since fall of 2013, GRTF has been developing plans to respond to these findings, and deciding how to fund that response. This summer they’ve made strides in both respects.

“We will be doing such things as enhancing riparian vegetation and wetland vegetation, and then also stabilizing stream banks and, in some places, putting in floodplain swales,” said Kristin Gardner, executive director of GRTF. “These projects will reduce nitrogen that makes it to the streams, as well as sediment.”

The plan is for additional vegetation and corresponding root systems to act as “buffers” along the stream’s edge, intercepting and processing an increased portion of the terrain’s nitrogen before it reaches the water. By repairing stream banks, GRTF also intends to slow erosion that brings high levels of fine sediment and nutrients into the Upper West Fork.

On July 16, a group of 14 stakeholders toured the impaired section of the stream, and discussed how best to improve each site. The group included interested scientists, GRTF board members, and spokespersons including representatives from the Montana DEQ, Big Sky Resort, Yellowstone Club, Big Sky Owners Association, and RESPEC – the consulting firm collaborating with GRTF on the project.

While some of the specific restorations appeared straightforward, others posed more complicated challenges like preserving native plant species, anticipating the effects of altered flood runoff, and converting an expansive pasture area into a functioning wetland.

While the Upper West Fork’s heightened nitrogen concentration can be traced back to a number of different sources, including fertilizer applied to the golf course and surrounding residential properties, the results of GRTF’s water quality assessments make it clear that municipal wastewater is the stream’s greatest pollutant, according to Gardner.

In Big Sky, wastewater flows directly from any building to the main treatment plant east of the community park. From there, the water moves through a smaller storage pond to a tertiary filters building

The Gallatin River Task Force began its attempt to lower nutrient concentrations in the Upper West Fork by planting willow trees along several stretches of the stream.

The Gallatin River Task Force began its attempt to lower nutrient concentrations in the Upper West Fork by planting willow trees along several stretches of the stream.

where it undergoes more treatment and chlorine is added. It’s then piped from that facility to a larger storage pond where the effluent can sit for up to a year before moving again.

Finally, Big Sky’s treated wastewater is pumped out of the pond and used to irrigate the fairways, greens and gardens of the public golf course. This system was a component of Big Sky Resort’s original development plan, and has been in place since the golf course was constructed in 1973.

According to the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, 110-120 million gallons of effluent are currently sprayed onto the golf course every year.

While wastewater reuse systems like this one are considered more sustainable than dumping effluent directly into nearby rivers, as is done in many municipalities, GRTF has determined that excessive amounts of wastewater are ending up in the Upper West Fork nonetheless.

With this restoration project, GRTF hopes to improve the water quality of the Upper West Fork while also pushing the Big Sky community toward an even more sustainable wastewater future.

“I know the ultimate goal of this community is to keep from dumping effluent into the Gallatin [River], and we’ve accomplished that,” said Big Sky Resort General Manager Taylor Middleton, during the Upper West Fork tour. “It’s going to take these kinds of walks, this kind of planning, to make sure the next 50 years are as good as the last 50.”

GRTF plans to break ground on the Upper West Fork restoration project next summer.

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