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Water Wisdom: Nine strategies to prevent algae blooms

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Last year an unprecedented algae bloom grew on the Gallatin River and some of its tributaries. PHOTO BY RICH ADDICKS


We are lucky to live, work, and play in the headwaters of a river system that sustains world-class fishing, paddling and scenery. However, nuisance algae growing in the Gallatin and streams that nourish it threatens our outdoor economy and lifestyle. In this second installment about the 2018 algae bloom, we’ll discuss strategies that will make the Gallatin more resilient going forward.

As a community, we can improve the resilience of our rivers and streams by reducing man-made nutrient pollution and conserving water. Let’s protect our clean water, healthy fisheries and way of life, even as Big Sky grows and our climate changes.

Individually and as a community, we can avoid blooms by reducing nutrient pollution which fuels excess algae growth.

  1. Properly maintaining septic systems. Similar to a car or appliance, septic systems require care, annual inspections and regular maintenance to properly treat wastewater. Failing systems leak nutrients and bacteria into groundwater and, eventually, rivers and streams.
  2. Reducing fertilizer use. Fertilizer feeds plants growing in lawns and gardens, but can contribute to elevated nutrients in water bodies. Trout-friendly practices, such as planting native species that require less maintenance or using organic fertilizers, reduce the nutrient footprint of outdoor landscapes.
  3. Managing animal waste. Picking up pet waste and properly maintaining horse corrals near streams benefits your neighbors while preventing nutrients and bacteria from being carried by runoff to the river.
  4. Maintaining and enhancing streamside buffers. Preserving a green ribbon of plant life on the banks of rivers and streams prevents erosion, uses nutrients and protects water quality.
  5. Improving stormwater management. Rain and snowmelt pick up and carry pollutants when they flow across parking lots and roads. Capturing and treating stormwater can remove contaminants before they reach rivers and streams.
  6. Upgrading wastewater treatment. Big Sky reuses treated wastewater to irrigate golf courses throughout the community, which may runoff into rivers and streams. Improvements to the Big Sky Water and Sewer District treatment plant will reduce nutrient levels in treated effluent used for irrigation by 70-75 percent for nitrogen and 90 percent for phosphorus.

Additionally, when we save water, we ensure adequate supply to our river system, which keeps water temperatures cool and prevents algae growth.

  1. Reducing indoor and outdoor water use. Every drop of water saved in homes and on landscapes remains in the groundwater and river system. Efficient practices, including purchasing water-saving products through the Gallatin River Task Force rebate program, reducing personal use and improving outdoor irrigation practices, keeps water in the river.
  2. Restoring wetlands and streamside areas. Wetlands and streamside areas act like sponges by capturing water during wet periods and releasing water during dry periods. This helps to maintain water levels throughout the year.
  3. Slowing water as it flows through the system. Wastewater reuse and stormwater management options that promote infiltration into the ground cause water to move more slowly through the watershed.

Algae blooms could become more severe as our community grows and water temperatures warm. Individual actions and community planning will be vital to protect our water, fisheries and lifestyle for future generations.

Visit for more information about how you can protect river health.

Stephanie Lynn is the education and communications coordinator for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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