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Water & Sewer District receives first ARPA check

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PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Flatiron subdivision, Little Coyote Pond, general manager hiring process and sewage plant delays also discussed in Jan. 17 board meeting

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

The Big Sky County Water and Sewer District received a check for $1.38 million on Jan. 11, after applying through the state for federal American Rescue Plan Act funding in 2021. The district was awarded the maximum amount of $2 million, with the remainder to be disbursed later.  

The ARPA award was among topics discussed on Tuesday during the district’s public board meeting. Other items included negotiations with the Big Sky Owners Association to trade water rights for a land easement, updates on the hiring process to replace District General Manager Ron Edwards as he nears retirement, a possible ordinance to protect the incoming Water Resource Recovery Facility by regulating grease discharge from restaurants and salt-based water softeners, an update on WRRF construction and its associated delays, and the proposed “Long Gun Ranch” minor subdivision of the Flat Iron development.  

The ARPA funding must be used by the end of 2026, though Edwards explained that he believes that may be extended given the slow pace of construction projects nationwide. He said the money is restricted to the purposes stated in the application and will be applied mostly to engineering costs of the water resource recovery facility.  

The check was received on Jan. 11, and was issued by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Helena. PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG SKY COUNTY WATER & SEWER DISTRICT

The WRRF remains under construction and behind its original goal of processing liquids by late May 2023. Due to supply-chain related delays in sourcing computer chips, the plant’s motor control center—District General Manager Ron Edwards called it “the brains” of the plant operation—cannot be completed on schedule. The liquid-processing phase may be delayed six months, with setbacks also affecting the final stages of construction. These delays were first announced in the district’s November board meeting. 

“Nobody can give us any assurance they aren’t going to push us back even more,” Edwards said.

The WRRF is about halfway complete in terms of total concrete poured.  

Photograph taken from board meeting agenda, showing overall delays. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Three-way trade for the Little Coyote Pond 

The Big Sky Owners Association is engaged in a project to conserve the West Fork Gallatin River by re-routing the river around a sediment pond which was used for decades, re-establishing uninterrupted river flow. With the pond closed off, the BSOA is planning to establish a fishery and community recreation area around the Little Coyote Pond but will need to secure water rights from the district first. 

Board members discussed the possibility of trading water rights to the BSOA in exchange for an easement—currently held by BSOA—which would allow the district to run a water main under Crazy Horse Road, eventually replacing an existing water tank and build an improved tank at the end of Crazy Horse Road. 

NorthWestern Energy currently owns the land desired by the district, as it previously held a sub-station at the end of Crazy Horse Road. The land is now used to store unused equipment. The board discussed the possibility of a quitclaim deed exchange with NorthWestern, offering a small plot of land beside the WRRF.  

“We are trying to trade [water rights] for an easement, both public community projects. And that’s a benefit to both sides,” Edwards said.  

Long Gun Ranch 

As part of the unfolding Flatiron resort development, developers proposed to subdivide 14 acres to create the one-lot Long Gun Ranch.  

Long Gun Ranch (left) would occupy a boot-shaped parcel south of Montana Highway 64 (Lone Mountain Trail) in the final hairpin turn east of the Mountain Village and Big Sky Resort. PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG SKY COUNTY WATER & SEWER DISTRICT

Most of the Flatiron subdivision is not included in the boundaries of the district, requiring developers to build an independent septic system. However, the Long Gun Ranch parcel is located “wholly within the water and sewer district,” according to proposal documents reviewed by the board.  

Edwards said that the district has “never planned to run sewer [over] there,” but added that the Flatiron project includes a plan to build a membrane bioreactor plant—a small-scale version of the WRRF being built by the district.  

Edwards said the current question is whether the MBR would cover the entire proposed Flatiron development. Alongside the districts Flatiron Committee, he’ll ask that question and others during a Jan. 25 meeting with developers.  

Grease, salt and phosphorus 

“Treatment plants don’t do well with a ton of grease coming in,” Edwards said. “If you can prevent some of the stuff coming in, it will prolong the life of the membranes.” 

The board completed the first reading of a drafted ordinance that would protect the WRRF from degrading materials. The primary concerns are grease from commercial kitchens, salt from conventional water softeners, and phosphorus—Edwards said the source of increasing phosphorus is unknown.  

Existing water softeners will be allowed, but if the ordinance passes, replacements and new builds will not be allowed to install conventional water softeners, which increase water salinity. 

The board discussed hiring a compliance officer, and Edwards added that it would likely be a regular short-term contractor.  

Five-month application drought 

Reminiscent of 2008-09, the board has not seen any new sewer applications for five months. One board member joked that it could be a new record.  

Edwards said it’s still early in the game, and that winter months typically slow applications. But with interest rates rising, he said uncertainty in the building market could make for a quiet 2023. He predicts a rebound in 2024.  

Talent search ‘encouraging’ 

“I’ll be 65 in February,” Edwards said.  

After 27 years in his role, Edwards has been keeping his eye on retirement. He said he hopes to stay on board until the WRRF is completed, but the district is searching now for his replacement. 

Board member Mike Wilcynski said the board has interviewed “strong candidates, very diverse backgrounds, very business-oriented and well-rounded.” 

Edwards hopes to overlap with the new hire for an extended transitional period.  

“There’s a lot of differences [in Big Sky] than a small town or city,” Edwards said. “There’s a lot of history of what we do. It’s unique.” 

The board discussed the “necessity” of providing housing for the incoming general manager, as board chair Brian Wheeler said candidates have “done their homework” on Big Sky’s real estate market and aren’t interested. Discussion included the possibility of building a house on land adjacent to the WRRF.  

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