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Officials discuss future of water in Big Sky

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Community members toured the new Water Resource Recovery Center in Big Sky. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Demand expected to exceed supply by 2032

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER

BIG SKY — Construction halted for an hour on Tuesday, Sept. 20 as the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District offered a public tour of the incoming Water Resource Recovery Facility. The plant is being built beside the existing wastewater treatment plant, which remains active.

“It’s been tough to build one of these when times are normal, much less what we’ve been through the last couple years,” said Scott Buecker, senior project engineer with AE2S Engineering, during the public tour.

The project began in June 2021 and is on schedule “plus or minus two weeks,” according to Buecker. Construction is expected to finish in May of 2024.

Concerns around clean water availability led residents in May 2020 to vote overwhelmingly in favor of this $60 million WRRF upgrade. On Sept. 20, during the open BSCWSD board meeting, officials projected that Big Sky’s population will grow between 3.9% and 4.7% each year and possibly double in the next 18 years.

This will cause peak-season water demand to outpace supply in the Mountain Village by 2040-45, and in the faster-growing Meadow Village by 2030-32, said Mark Cunnane, district hydrogeologist. Cunnane presented an update to the local water source capacity plan during the meeting. During the morning meeting, district officials discussed solutions including water conservation through education, incentive, mandate, or increased utility rates. Other suggested improvements included Direct Potable Reuse—a sterilization process illegal in Montana but that has gained popularity in more arid states—and upgrades to streamline the hydraulic pump system bringing water throughout the Mountain Village.

The red line represents the point at which maximum daily water demand would equal supply. The spike in Mountain Village water supply assumes treating water from three wells in that area. The steep green line represents the higher growth rate of the Meadow Village, projected to cross the red line around 2030. COURTESY OF BSWSD

With looming water access challenges, Big Sky’s new wastewater plant will play a key role in increasing resident capacity and processing efficiency.

Big Sky’s expected water treatment capacity will increase by nearly 52% on average, accommodating further growth in the district and parts of the canyon. Furthermore, the BSCWSD reported that treated wastewater will improve to Montana Department of Environmental Quality Class A-1 standards, qualifying it to be discharged into groundwater and recharge aquifers, irrigate land as needed, and provide a more sustainable source of winter joy as it crystallizes from snow guns on the resort.

The WRRF is also expected to provide better phosphorus and nitrogen removal, making the discharged water  more sterile, contributing less to algal blooms in adjacent waterways, said Daniel Tracy, project superintendent representing Boise-based construction firm RSCI.  Algal blooms have hit the Gallatin River for five consecutive years.

On Tuesday afternoon after the board meeting, Tracy and other officials guided a tour of the WRRF site.

His crew has poured just over one-third of the planned total 9,000 yards of concrete mixed in the nearby batch plant. With near-site production, cement trucks have avoided creating traffic on U.S. Highway 191. They’ve logged long hours this summer to finish pouring concrete and closing the structure before November, allowing them to work indoors.

The new wastewater tanks will also be covered with aluminum insulation, which is intended to regulate the treatment process under extreme cold and limit the possibility of any foul odor. 

By the end of this week, the crew expects to have installed hollow-core roofing atop the plant, said one builder. Ron Edwards, BSCWSD general manager, pointed out that this project would not have been possible without the area resort tax. Of the project’s $60 million cost, $27 million is being funded by resort tax. Other sources include $43 million from a private revenue bond, supported by various tax, loan and grant money, $8 million from district reserves, and $2.2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, BSWSD documents show.

Daniel Tracy (right) explains that the concrete panels were shipped from Billings. The heaviest weighed 40,000 pounds. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

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