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Opinion: Do the Gallatin a favor

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On Jan. 7, the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board approved Big Sky Water and Sewer District’s 1 percent for infrastructure application. Now, residents will vote in May to approve the additional tax, with revenues helping pay for a portion of a new, upgraded wastewater treatment plant, and a lift station and pipeline to convey wastewater from the canyon area to the plant in the years to come.

Not surprisingly, the decision was met with a mixed bag of reactions. There has been confusion about the funding mechanism, concerns about the impacts to the watershed and questions around the wisdom of enabling even more growth in a town that appears stretched to its limits. Here’s what we know, what we’re in the process of finding out and where we stand on the overlap between the watershed’s ecological health and our town’s infrastructure needs.

First, we know that the proposed wastewater treatment plant is a requirement; the district is legally obligated to serve already planned growth in its district. Already planned development alone will push our current water and sewer plant past its capacity soon, and doing nothing solves nothing. Like it or not, people want to live here and others want to visit.

The upgraded plant will treat wastewater to a much higher level than the current plant, greatly reducing harmful nutrient loads while allowing for new reuse opportunities like groundwater recharge and snowmaking. This ensures more clean water in our creeks and tributaries, a net win for the watershed, its piscine population and its human inhabitants.

While the treatment plant will be expensive, our watershed is worth it. A maximum of $27 million for the new plant will come from the 1 percent tax, about 60 percent of the plant’s overall cost. Big Sky needs to invest in watershed security, and the watershed deserves the highest standards.

An upgraded plant is part one of Big Sky’s wastewater treatment projects. The second element of the Water and Sewer District’s application is a lift station and two pipelines running from the proposed new plant down to the canyon and back. These pipelines will be built if and only if canyon residents and businesses decide to form a water and sewer district of their own, centralizing water and sewer services, another added benefit to the watershed.

Centralized wastewater treatment for the canyon area will greatly reduce the nutrient load currently entering groundwater likely connected to the river from canyon residents. Most canyon residents are on individual septic systems that are antiquated and in desperate need of maintenance or replacement. A centralized system could connect those residents to BSWSD’s new and improved treatment facility, resulting in an estimated 99 percent less bacteria, 90 percent less nitrogen and 90 percent less phosphorus entering the canyon area’s groundwater.

While forming a centralized water district is the best option for the ecological health of the watershed, it’s also the best option for property owners. The longer canyon residents remain on individual systems, the greater the odds of nutrient loads impairing the Gallatin, an unacceptable outcome for the river and a major threat to property values. Maintenance costs also go down with a centralized system, another cash-saving benefit to homeowners.

The moment anyone mentions a pipeline, river enthusiasts’ ears perk up. In the past, pipelines have meant direct discharge, but that is not the plan in this case, and the Gallatin River Task Force does not support such a project. Instead, some of the wastewater treated at the new and improved plant in Big Sky would be piped to the canyon and reused and recycled in a way that would benefit the watershed. It could be used to recharge the aquifer, irrigate landscaping and/or for snowmaking on cross-country ski trails. The ultimate methods of reuse will depend on further analysis, and a study is underway by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Recycling this highly treated wastewater is far better for the ecological health of the watershed than leaving canyon residents relying on separate, failing septics. Again, there is no intention for this pipeline to connect to the mainstem of the Gallatin River.

It’s easy to think of the Gallatin as a wild, pristine river. In fact, it more closely resembles an urban waterway, threatened in many of the same ways. The human impact is a threat from the canyon all the way to Three Forks, and our primary concern is mitigating that threat. Step one is upgrading Big Sky’s current wastewater facility. Step two is forming a water and sewer district in the canyon and centralizing that area’s water and sewer services. By taking these two steps, we can stack the odds in the Gallatin’s favor.

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