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Op-ed: Gallatin River a treasure of southwest Montana

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By Kristin Gardner and Ennion Williams EBS CONTRIBUTORS

In a Jan. 4 Bozeman Daily Chronicle article titled “The right kind of protection for the Gallatin River,” the author shares selective information and strong opinions about how we are caring for the river, or, rather, how we are not caring for the river. Let’s be clear: Big Sky cares deeply about the river. 

The Gallatin River is a treasure of southwest Montana. On that we can agree. We know threats facing the river should be taken seriously and addressed with vigor and urgency as if our lives, and livelihoods, depend on it.

Disregard the premise that any one community cares for the Gallatin more than the next. Let’s acknowledge that protecting the Gallatin River is the common thread for all who espouse information about the current and future state of the river and move forward with intention in doing what is right for the Gallatin to the best of our abilities, backed by science and resources. 

For decades, protecting the Gallatin has been the mission of the Gallatin River Task Force. The organization’s credibility lies in trusting science, taking responsibility and exploring the most proactive ways to drive stewardship and community-led solutions for protecting this resource for today, and for future generations. 

Millions of dollars invested, thousands of hours spent in research, clean-up and volunteer time, investments in technological advances, advocacy, education, community organizations and dozens of local, state and federal experts focused on the health of the Gallatin—all show, in real terms, how much we care about the Gallatin River. 

Several factors play a role in the urgency for closer, more careful attention paid to this resource.  Development is one. Climate is another, as is recreational pressure. Habitat, natural resource sustainability and managed access take equal stock in the future of the Gallatin, and several points made in the recent opinion piece make it difficult not to offer real facts for consideration.

Let’s start with “the Gallatin River has turned into a swamp of green algae the last summers” because of overdevelopment. Nuisance algae growth has been occurring on the Gallatin downstream of Big Sky since at least 2003 when the first scientific work on the Gallatin was started. The presence of nutrients at blame for the increase in algae is not new, nor is it the direct result of the recent years’ worth of growth.  The more recent large-scale algae blooms of 2018 and 2020 occurred both upstream and downstream of the development in Big Sky, suggesting that there are multiple drivers associated with algae growth outside of development.

The author continues: “the wastewater holding ponds in Big Sky are discharging treated sewage from a pipe directly into the West Fork of the Gallatin.” The wastewater ponds are not discharging treated sewage directly into the West Fork from a pipe. The pipe is part of an underground drainage system permitted by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality that transports groundwater upgradient (like upstream but for groundwater) and around the ponds so that the groundwater flow does not rupture the pond liner. The nutrient concentrations in the pipe are less than the nutrient concentrations upgradient of the ponds.

There are criticisms of Big Sky’s methods for handling treated wastewater through irrigation of community golf courses and the newly approved, and DEQ-permitted, process of snowmaking. The golf course irrigation and the snowmaking “scheme” that the author refers to are in fact more advanced methods to replace other wastewater recycling processes that are more harmful to the watershed. 

The most straightforward, far less expensive method to discharge wastewater—from a DEQ permitting perspective—is to do as most of our neighbors like Bozeman do, and discharge directly into the Gallatin.  Alternatively, Big Sky has invested millions of dollars on solutions designed to protect our watershed, including over $50 million in a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility and even more millions slated over the next 10 years in river restoration projects. These are calculated, intentional steps backed by science, data and positive results.

Navigating the future of the Gallatin River requires collaboration. Prioritizing the health of the Gallatin, a group of stakeholders representing diverse perspectives—including conservation, development, government, science and agriculture—developed a comprehensive plan in 2018 to focus on solutions-driven initiatives around river restoration, monitoring, improved wastewater treatment, wastewater recycling and water conservation. This process is ongoing. It is a partnership between science and conservation, among key partners and community leaders with a shared end goal of preserving the Gallatin River. 

The author makes a few correct points. The future of the Gallatin River is threatened by water pollution, and all Montanans do have the right to a clean and healthful environment. More important than our “right” to a clean and healthful environment is accepting the responsibility to take an active role in fulfilling that right. Accusations and misinformation will not protect the Gallatin; hard work, committed partners, science, financial investment and a community-led vision for a healthy river will. 

Kristin Gardner is the chief executive science officer of the Gallatin River Task Force. Ennion Williams is the board chair of the Gallatin River Task Force.

Editor’s Note: Ennion Williams is also the vice president of events for Outlaw Partners, publisher of EBS.

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