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Wastewater disposal and reuse—what are the options?

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By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – If there was a subtext to the Oct. 18 meeting of the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum stakeholder meeting, it might have read, “democracy is messy” or “consensus-based decision-making takes time.”

Despite running more than a half-hour over its allotted three-hour timeframe, the forum didn’t quite pin down wastewater treatment priorities, although it appears that the group—which is comprised of 36 stakeholders that have been meeting since June 2016—is getting closer.

The five leading options for wastewater storage and reuse that were discussed include the following:

A“purple pipe” irrigation option. Residents would use treated effluent rather than potable water to water their lawns. Big Sky Water and Sewer District ratepayers could continue to water their lawns with potable water, but they would be charged at a much higher rate to do so.

This could help slow the use of freshwater from Big Sky’s aquifers, which will be in jeopardy as development continues. This is one of the lower-cost options, but the disposal capacity is an unknown and it makes the most sense for high-density areas close to existing sewer mains.

Using treated effluent for snowmaking. This would require a surface water discharge permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Taylor Middleton, the general manager of Big Sky Resort, has voiced his support—as have many others in the forum—but several attendees of the Oct. 18 meeting questioned if the resort would use energy and resources to make snow with treated effluent during years when Big Sky has a robust snowpack. This would require a high level of treatment at the wastewater plant.

Shallow groundwater recharge. This could mean spraying treated effluent into forests or into wetlands so they could eventually filter through the soil and recharge aquifers. There are concerns about agronomic uptake with this option, particularly given Big Sky’s soil composition—nutrients like nitrogen leftover in the water after it’s treated could potentially make their way into the watershed, where they pose a problem for aquatic life. Increased treatment could help mitigate this concern.

There are also water rights issues to contend with since the Gallatin headwaters are in what’s considered a closed basin, meaning there are no additional water rights free for allocation, and this would not constitute a beneficial use.

Potable water reuse. This is sometimes referred to as “toilet to tap,” and is more often seen in dry, highly populated areas where freshwater is scarce. The primary barriers to this option are cost and public perception. Big Sky’s wastewater treatment facility would require an expensive upgrade and there’s a so-called “yuck factor” that would have to be overcome.

Direct discharge to the Gallatin River. This is the most conventional—and one of the cheapest—options on the table, but a permit to do so could be challenged in the court system and rendered ineffective, even if it is granted by DEQ. This option has also encountered significant resistance from recreationists and environmentalists concerned about potential impacts to the ecosystem and the area’s recreation economy.

Most of the stakeholders found something they liked about each of the first three options, but there was less support for the latter two.

Forum facilitator Karen Filipovich pointed out at the beginning of the meeting that she’s aiming to have a water stewardship plan in place by the end of the year.

“All of the things we’ve talked about are all going to take time,” said Ron Edwards, general manager of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District. “This [development] train is moving really fast right now.”

The next stakeholder meeting for the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum is scheduled for Nov. 16 from 1-4 p.m. at the BSWSD boardroom. On Sunday, Oct. 29, a meeting held at the Bozeman Public Library will address alternatives to a direct discharge. Billed as a “third-party held, informational meeting about wastewater issues facing Big Sky,” it’s being hosted by Cottonwood Environmental Law Center of Bozeman and is open to the public.

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