By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – After a year and a half of monthly meetings, the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum is close to finalizing a recommended plan of action to address the complex web of water-related issues facing Big Sky in the short and long term.
“This is the most ambitious plan I’ve ever seen a community put together,” said facilitator Karen Filipovich at the final stakeholder meeting on Nov. 16. “You’re trying to do what municipalities do and what nonprofits do. But you said you wanted to be a model community, and that’s what you’re trying to be.”
The meeting was devoted to identifying gaps in the plan and to confirm that the 30-plus stakeholders—a diverse group of representatives from local and national conservation groups, Big Sky Water and Sewer District, Big Sky Resort, state and county agencies, and other invested parties—were all on board with the plan and the steps to implement it.
The Big Sky Water Solutions Forum aims to have the plan completely finalized by Dec. 31, and to present it to the community in late January 2018. Once approved, it will become part of a comprehensive watershed stewardship plan that stretches into 2028 and beyond.
Wastewater reuse continues to be the touchiest issue, but consensus was reached to propose moving forward with using treated wastewater for irrigation, snowmaking and groundwater recharge. Discharging into the Gallatin River was not discussed, because stakeholders were unable to reach consensus on the issue.
The immediate priority needs identified included water reuse, conservation and restoration; the expansion of surface and groundwater monitoring; and forming partnerships with residents in Gallatin Canyon to address loosely regulated septic systems.
In Montana, there isn’t an established road map for using treated effluent for snowmaking, and between the technical aspects and potential policy hurdles, Myla Kelly with Montana Department of Environment Quality estimated it would likely take more than a year to get through that process. The goal is to have the system in place at the Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort by winter 2020.
“Everyone [at Boyne] was cautious about it in the beginning but we’ve really embraced it as a company,” said Brian Wheeler, director of real estate and development at Big Sky Resort. “It’s a really exciting time and it all comes down to treatment levels.”
All were in agreement that high treatment levels were a necessity; and for irrigation, the water is required to be fully consumptive.
Wheeler said in terms of snowmaking, they’d start with the “low hanging fruit,” such as the Southern Comfort area, and joked that it was unlikely that they’d be snowmaking back in Liberty Bowl.
Generally, the stakeholders agreed that the benefits of using treated wastewater for snowmaking would be threefold: more snow at higher elevations would be a late season source of groundwater recharge, remove the need to draw fresh water from area aquifers to make snow, and strengthen the ski industry the community relies on by providing more reliable snow.
In the short term, a subcommittee would identify Montana requirements for snowmaking with reused water, establish monitoring criteria and begin collecting data, explore engineering and legal options from states with established snowmaking systems, and identify necessary treatment levels to ensure it would have no ecological impact.
The large, diverse group of stakeholders were unified from the beginning on the importance of the ecological health of the regional river systems.
Filipovich looked to Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, for insight into improving and maintaining the area watersheds. Gardner said additional funding was needed to increase monitoring, and action steps were established for the short and long term to locate such funding.
Finally, the big issue was how to secure long-term funding sources to be able to carry out its recommended action plan, and the related need to foster community engagement.
“That’s what you’ve said consistently for 18 months—that you want to address the problem that there are a lot of people in this community who don’t understand water resources.” Filipovich said.
It was decided that funding has to be sought from other sources outside of resort tax, because it is already burdened by so many demands from the community.
At the close of the three-hour meeting, Filipovich asked those who have participated in this lengthy, involved process how they felt about what had been achieved and the path ahead.
“The power in this is that we all met consensus and we can move forward with these actions,” said Scott Bosse of American Rivers. “We may not all be in total agreement on every issue, but we all said we could live with it.”
There was remarkably little tension and dissent throughout this process—there were a few little skirmishes—but personality-wise and issue-wise I think it’s outstanding we all had this vision of Big Sky being a model community,” Bosse added. “I think we set the bar high and we got over it.”