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Water Wisdom: Progress report

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As the Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Plan turns three, EBS columnist David Tucker reflects on the progress that has been made in improving water quality and expanding water conservation. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GALLATIN RIVER TASK FORCE

By David Tucker EBS CONTRIBUTOR

In January 2018, after two years of multi-stakeholder community engagement, the Gallatin River Task Force and its partners released the Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan, a 177-page document intended to guide conservation, restoration and education efforts throughout the upper Gallatin watershed.

Fast forward three years and we think it’s high time we checked in with the plan to assess our community’s progress and ensure we’re all being held accountable to the Gallatin River.

Since day one, water management in Big Sky has been a collaborative undertaking. Because we all want to protect the Gallatin River, partnerships have proven paramount, and progress has been the only option.

And progress is what we’ve seen. While it can sometimes seem that the Gallatin is doomed, major steps forward have been taken in the last 18 months—none larger than the community’s support for a new wastewater treatment facility in Big Sky.

Once complete, this facility will treat wastewater to a standard seen nowhere else in Montana, greatly expanding our wastewater reuse options. This is important as our water-strapped region searches for innovative solutions to supply issues. Higher quality effluent means we can irrigate golf courses, public spaces, community parks and other landscapes without using fresh water and without further compromising water quality. Plus we can pursue other wastewater recycling options that are more beneficial to watershed health and the water cycle, like snowmaking and groundwater recharge.

In this way, the new plant satisfies all three focus areas of the Sustainable Watershed Plan: It improves the ecological health of river systems, it improves wastewater treatment and expands reuse options and it conserves fresh water, augmenting the water supply and availability. Progress, indeed.

Another Watershed Plan priority is improving conditions in the Gallatin Canyon, roughly the area from the Conoco south to the Rainbow Ranch. This stretch of river is at risk as development potential here is significant and coordinated wastewater management is lacking. But all that is changing, and for the better.

Just this winter, four landowners formed the Gallatin Canyon County Water and Sewer District, creating a governing body to advocate for sustainable water choices. This sets the stage for central sewer collection in the Canyon instead of the jumble of individual septic systems and small community systems that exist there now. While some of these adequately treat waste, taken together they pose a significant threat to ground- and surface-water quality. A centralized system for collection will radically decrease current and future problems.

Because we know that our water resources are limited and that the Gallatin’s health hangs in the balance, reusing treated wastewater has always been a community priority. Recently, we took another big step forward in that regard, and checked another Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Plan box.

The Yellowstone Club submitted an application for a permit to reuse highly treated wastewater for snowmaking, a process that would further discourage discharge into the Gallatin while bolstering the in-stream flows of summer. This process can serve as a model for other area resorts that typically use fresh water for snowmaking, and it doesn’t have negative environmental impacts on water resources. In fact, because this water will now be stored in the snowpack and released during runoff, this process actually improves in-stream conditions. Again, progress.

While infrastructure-scale projects are vitally important to the health of the Gallatin, so too are individual actions taken by our residents and visitors. As we know well, there are more of us living in and visiting Big Sky than ever before, and we all need to do our part.

To that end, the Big Sky Water Conservation program has grown from nothing to over 100 participants just in the last three years, saving over 6 million gallons of fresh water. Through this program, we can establish a culture of conservation in our headwaters community, increasing accountability and empowering change.

By now it should be clear the Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Plan is much more than just a heavy, spiral-bound document that sits on a shelf. It is the guiding force influencing not only the Task Force’s work, but the decision-making of the entire upper Gallatin community. Water managers, real-estate developers, small-business owners and local residents are all using this plan because they all had a stake in creating it, and they all have a stake in ensuring it is implemented.

David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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