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Making It In Big Sky: Alpine Water

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Since earning his Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Oregon and a Master of Science in water resources from Humboldt State, Pete Manka has been involved in water resource engineering and management for over 17 years. PHOTO COURTESY OF PETE MANKA

By Doug Hare EBS STAFF

Pete Manka is a busy man. In addition to serving as the Principal Water Resource Engineer at Alpine Water, a company he brought to Big Sky in 2009, he is also on the board of directors for the Big Sky Water and Sewer District (BSWSD), the Westfork Meadows HOA and the Big Sky Futbol Club.

When he’s not engineering water solutions for the local community, the former freeride coach stays involved with his big mountain skiing roots helping organize, judge, and emcee competitive events in the region for the International Free Skiers Association and Freeride World Qualifying circuit.

In the warmer months, he can be found refereeing matches for the Big Sky Futbol Club, mountain biking, or hitting line drives in the Big Sky Coed Softball League, all while raising his three daughters with his wife Ellie. The Oregon native can also be found playing music at Lone Mountain Ranch and yurt dinners, which he says helps balance the demands of his engineering work, volunteering activities and athletic pursuits.  

Explore Big Sky: What’s the most interesting or unique thing about the town of Big Sky? 
Pete Manka:  It’s not a town. It’s pretty much a bunch of HOAs and boards that keep the wheels from falling off up here. Big Sky is the type of place where if you’d like to see something happen, you can make it happen by getting involved and putting your energy behind something that you’re passionate about. 

A decade ago there were no opportunities for middle school and high school soccer players to play locally. A group of families put a lot of time into coaching and organizing the teams and now there is a Big Sky Futbol Club with over 120 kids playing locally and two high school-aged teams. I’ve learned a lot about the potential of energy and effort from being a part of that process.

Ever wonder why people wander in groups down the middle of the streets around the Westfork and South Fork commercial/residential interface? It’s because there are no sidewalks or crosswalks and you’re less likely to get run over that way.

It all comes back to the fact that we’re not a town and nobody is going to make anything happen unless we decide what needs to be done and figure out a way to do it ourselves. There hasn’t been much progress on incorporation lately, so it seems like “not a town” is the way it’s going to be for a while. That means that all of the associations, organizations and districts in Big Sky will need to work collectively to meet the growing infrastructure needs. 

EBS: How did you decide to pursue your master’s degree?

P.M.: Started as kid building dams on the creeks behind my house in torrential rain storms. Water is a magnet for me. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”  –Norman Maclean

EBS: What is unique about your industry/trade that people might not expect?

P.M.: Water is an important part of people’s lives. When you help someone improve their water, you improve the quality of their life and you get to know them pretty well. I greatly value the friendships I have made with the people that I have worked with over the years. 

EBS: What are the biggest problems facing water management in Big Sky today? How should we approach and try to solve them?

P.M.: The elephant in the room right now is the fact that we are running out of capacity to recycle our treated wastewater. Big Sky is truly unique and exceptional on a national level for the fact that we have never discharged our wastewater into an adjacent waterbody (river, lake, ocean). We completely recycle all of our treated wastewater by watering the local golf courses. 

We have no disposal options in the winter so we nervously wait as the ponds rise and we approach overflowing before we can water the golf courses again in the spring. We were just a few feet from overflowing into the Gallatin River several years ago. Nobody around here wants to see that happen. The BSWSD is aggressively pursuing the design of a state-of-the-art treatment facility which would allow us to produce drinking quality water, opening up other avenues for recycling our water such as snow making and aquifer recharge.

We are also continuing exploration to bolster water supplies as development booms and the need intensifies. It is amazing how much more water we use in the summer (8-10 times) irrigating landscapes and during the big holidays. Some of the usage levels are astounding, so we are looking at ways to tier the rate structure so that everyone pays their fair share. Ultimately, being conscious and responsible for your personal water use is something that we all need to consider.

EBS: What are currently the most controversial issues surrounding water management in Big Sky?

P.M.: There was a group of 40 resource managers, scientists, business owners and representatives of citizen groups that met monthly for two years. We crafted a Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan that incorporates the leading science and technology into generating recommendations for a responsible and sustainable path forward. We have the ability to create one of the most advanced water recycling systems in the nation and on the planet, but who is going to pay for it? Is protecting the unique quality of the Gallatin River and the associated tourism worth it?

Most people like the river as it is. Logically, the forthcoming development should shoulder a portion of the responsibility for implementing solutions. The current system, though taxed, is working for the current size of our community and could last decades with just minor upgrades if there was no additional growth. A strong potential for collaboration has emerged recently between the BSWSD Board and the Resort Tax Board as programs to support infrastructure development seem tailored for collaboration to address our current challenges.                                             

EBS: What are the biggest misconceptions about water management that the general public has?

P.M.: That when you turn on a water tap or crack a store bought bottle, it’s all good. Seemingly clean water can contain many tasteless and odorless contaminants that are not always well regulated.  If you own a private well, you are entirely responsible for your water quality which is unusual for many people who are accustomed to municipal water.  It’s wise to be conscious of what’s in the water you drink and where it comes from.

Big Sky tap water is better than 95 percent of the bottled water out there.  There is a perfect balance of minerals, no added chemicals and it was voted the Best Tap Water in America by the American Water Works Association. Just turn on a tap in the meadow or mountain, no disposable bottles needed in our valley.

EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stay here rather than another ski town?

P.M.: The community and seeing the peak every day.

EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident in Big Sky? 

P.M.: This is a very fun and colorful town. The memories are like a robe woven together by joy, sweat and pursuit of the dream. Many locals are actually living the dream every day in Big Sky and that is a big part of what makes this such an inspiring place. I can think of some epic stories, but one sentence just can’t do them justice.

EBS: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about your chosen profession?

P.M.: Learn or create something every day. The world in which we live requires that we progress and innovate in order to survive.

EBS: Can you say more about your recent collaboration with The Wilson Hotel?

P.M.: Yes, it’s a big win for water resources in Big Sky. Conserving millions gallons of water and hundreds of thousands of pounds of salt from ending up in the wastewater ponds every couple of years is a big deal considering how close our system is to maxing out. Science and technology are powerful tools and it seems wise to implement innovative ways to improve the quality of water while also conserving finite resources. Hats off to Lone Mountain Land Company for bringing a very conscientious and efficient Wilson Hotel project to Big Sky.

EBS: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

P.M.: If I could keep living everyday as I do now, I’d just keep doing that as long as I have that opportunity.

EBS: What changes to Big Sky’s water management infrastructure do you predict in the next decade?

P.M.: The next decade in water could be pretty exciting around here. We have the opportunity to implement one of the most efficient water recycling systems on the planet, but ultimately that is governed by growth and demand. If this place keeps growing like it is, we have some complex questions to answer about the future of the community and the Gallatin River. My sense is that there is so much intelligence, resources, and forethought here, that our community could very well live up to the world-class potential that our mountain has always had.

EBS: What makes your business successful in the long run?

P.M.: I’ve had opportunities to grow and expand and I’ve always chosen to keep it small so that I can provide quality, personalized services to my clients. I don’t want to lose touch with the knowledge and care that made this business successful in the first place.  I strive to stay passionate about improving people’s lives through bettering their water and continuing to innovate in order to make the best use of a precious resource.

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