By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – In 1995, while living in Wisconsin, a 38-year-old Ron Edwards received a newspaper clipping from his mother-in-law living in Missoula. It was a small ad announcing a job opening in the undiscovered resort community of Big Sky.
“I think I faxed my resume in at 4:55 on a deadline that was 5 p.m. on a Friday,” Edwards recalled. “I didn’t think much of it.”
The following Monday, Edwards received a call from the Big Sky Water and Sewer District President Bill Ogle, who wanted to fly him to Big Sky for an interview.
Just days after the meeting, Edwards, who has a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Montana and his master’s in water resources management from University of Wisconsin-Madison, was offered the position of BSWSD general manager. He moved to Big Sky a few days later.
Edwards was hired in the midst of a building moratorium that stretched from 1993 to the summer of 1996 as a result of Big Sky’s outdated wastewater system. The facility was updated and the moratorium overturned, and Edwards has had to confront growth and its challenges ever since.
As the district’s general manager, Edwards leads a team of nine in supplying the majority of Big Sky with drinking water and properly disposing of the area’s wastewater.
Recently, EBS reached out to Edwards to hear his thoughts on water in Big Sky and the growing pains the district now faces. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
EBS: So far, where are we at in terms of water levels this year?
Ron Edwards: We’ve got two things, we’ve got the drinking water system and then we’ve got our wastewater system. As far as water supply, this time of year is real easy because we’re in the shoulder season right now and there’s no irrigation going on to speak of. We can keep up with demand with one of our Meadow Village wells running, [though the district operates a total of 14 wells]. Our big stress months are July and August. We use eight times what we do in the winter, and it’s all irrigation consumption that causes that.
As far as wastewater … we had a huge snowpack year—150 percent of average. Any time we get big snowpack we see an impact to the sewer system. All this runoff elevates water tables. You get water coming into the manholes and it impacts us. The result is we’ve got a lot of full storage ponds right now.
EBS: What is the irrigation outlook for this summer? When will irrigation be implemented?
R.E: We irrigate [the golf courses at Spanish Peaks and Yellowstone Club, as well as the Big Sky Resort Golf Course]. We’re one of the few communities in the state that can claim that we are 100 percent reuse.
The Spanish Peaks golf course is new and they’re going to be moving to using treated water for their irrigation so we now have another pond near Spanish Peaks that we can pump to.
It’s always a challenging thing. If it’s a wet spring, we’re getting a lot of rain, it cuts down on our ability to irrigate. We’re always concerned about that. Irrigation has been charged up and the golf course [in the Meadow] is irrigating.
As far as irrigating at Spanish Peaks, they still have to set their pumps. The Yellowstone Club is in the process of starting.
EBS: Where is the district at in terms of developing snowmaking as a way to utilize effluent? What is your opinion on this method?
R.E.: I think it’s a viable option for us. I like it in the fact that it gives us a winter disposal option. We’re also looking at groundwater disposal and we’re still looking at surface water disposal. We’re basically keeping everything on the table to examine it, do engineering on it, and give us options moving forward. We’re pretty early in the process of that.
EBS: Currently, BSWSD is conducting studies on the water quality at Cascade Wells 5 and 6. Why is the district conducting these tests?
R.E.: They’re very deep wells. … Those are our biggest wells up there but we’ve got hydrogen sulfide in the water. It’s not a public health related thing, but it’s very volatile so when you run that water into your home, [it could] create an odor.
We run the wells and blend the water with wells near Lake Levinsky. We’re trying to figure out a way to treat that water to remove hydrogen sulfide so that we can run those wells a lot more than we currently do.
EBS: What do you see as the biggest water and sewer challenges facing Big Sky in years ahead? What needs to happen in order to mitigate them?
R.E.: There’s two things. On the water supply side … at some point, you need more water. You can’t just go drill a well in Big Sky, you have to mitigate for that water somehow because we are in a closed basin.
You could mitigate through groundwater recharge where we’re taking treated water, putting it into the groundwater system, and getting a credit for that. In the case of the snowmaking option, that could potentially become a claim for water rights to drill new wells.
On the wastewater side, the biggest issue for us here is disposal. What do we do with all this disposal? How do we dispose of it in a manner that meets all state requirements?