By David Tucker EBS CONTRIBUTOR
Though Big Sky’s full-time population is rapidly growing, this is still a tourist town. As such, there are a variety of inns, lodges, hotels and motels, all catering to visitors itching to enjoy southwest Montana’s natural beauty.
While AirBnB-style rentals are popular, traditional hospitality businesses still service the vast majority of the tourists, and those tourists use a lot of water. That puts this industry in a powerful position when it comes to water conservation, a critical element of resource management here in Big Sky.
As a semi-arid headwaters community, we’re water-stressed, and our supply is further limited by our unique geology. Add to that our closed-basin status regarding water rights, and supply is even more challenging. Implementing water savings in the lodging sector could have huge benefits for the watershed.
One such opportunity recently presented itself to the managers at Buck’s T-4 in Gallatin Canyon. This iconic road-side lodge was renovating its 73 guest rooms and had a decision to make: leave the 1970s toilets in every bathroom, or upgrade to efficient models. Buck’s chose the latter, and after just three months, the managers are very glad they did.
Since installing 63 new toilets, Buck’s has seen a water savings of 600,000 gallons over the same period last year. The new toilet models use 1.28 gallons per flush, whereas the old ones used close to 3. That’s roughly half the water usage from one simple upgrade.
Buck’s co-owner and general manager David O’Connor said they weren’t expecting such results. Buck’s is on its own sewer system, essentially a miniature version of Big Sky Water and Sewer’s lagoon system, but with one major difference: “If our lagoons are full, we close,” O’Connor said. He was at a point where he had to find a way to decrease the volume of treated wastewater in his ponds.
The low-flow toilets were part of the solution, creating less wastewater and drawing less water out of the ground. Because of the canyon’s shallow aquifer, groundwater withdrawals have a bigger impact on surface water flows, as all water would eventually flow to the river. “Our property is next to the river, so we’ve always had an ethic about water,” O’Connor said. “That’s part of running a business in the canyon. This was a business decision that supported the ecological decision, and it didn’t cost a dime we weren’t spending anyway.”
While a conservation ethic seems to run deep at Buck’s, other businesses should take note. “In Montana, business and ecological health aren’t in conflict,” O’Connor said, adding that one must support the other, or neither is guaranteed.
Most of us don’t have 73 toilets to replace in our homes, but there probably are 73 toilets in each of our subdivisions. Upgrading our own appliances, and then encouraging our neighbors to do the same could lead to similar water savings. “Don’t underestimate tiny consumers of water,” O’Connor said. “A bunch of small things add up.”
That mentality is at the core of the Big Sky Water Conservation Program, which provides rebates to Big Sky homeowners who upgrade their appliances and water systems to high-efficiency products. Individual savings won’t be on the order of 600,000 gallons every three months like Buck’s has experienced, but in our water-stressed community, every drop counts, and we all need to do our part.
David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.