Big Sky, its infrastructure challenges and future

“We are a headwater community and with that comes the added responsibility of ensuring a safe environment.”

For over 25 years, the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District has maintained our commitment to meeting the needs of our water and sewer customers. Our mission is to provide efficient and reliable water and sewer service that meets or exceeds federal and state regulations. Development and growth in the unincorporated areas both within and outside of our district are under the authority of Gallatin and Madison Counties. But no matter the responsibility, population or number of connections served, our mission remains the same. 

     The Big Sky County Water and Sewer District currently reclaims 100 percent of our treated water by irrigating two golf courses with properly treated wastewater, also known as effluent. This year we will also begin irrigating a third course at Spanish Peaks. We also irrigate our Community Park and dispersed landscapes within the district and at the Yellowstone Club. We will continue to maximize the reuse of our effluent resources and evaluate additional water reuse alternatives, including rapid infiltration and snow-making. 

     As Big Sky grows, our effluent disposal needs will soon exceed our available disposal capacity. We are especially vulnerable in extremely wet years, when the irrigation season demand is reduced by abundant rainfall. Second, all of our current disposal methods rely heavily on third-party agreements, which leaves our disposal capacity vulnerable to entities and events beyond the district’s control, including potential equipment or infrastructure failures. Third, the storage ponds we utilize require regular liner repair. The liners installed in the district’s ponds are 20-years-old and will eventually have to be re-lined, which will require taking them out of service for several months. Finally, Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) currently has no permitting framework for snow-making, which will increase the time to procure discharge permits for this disposal option. 

     Considering all of these factors, we have chosen to think proactively and evaluate the feasibility of upgrading our wastewater treatment facility to produce an exceptional quality of effluent. Included on the team that is evaluating this are water quality and fisheries experts to ensure the Gallatin River’s ecological health is maintained. We want to combine rapid infiltration and snow-making with the efficient use of water and continued irrigation using high-quality effluent. 

     We will continue to actively collaborate with other organizations from the Sustainable Solutions Forum to engage stakeholders to help monitor and test our impacts on the watershed. We have board members and staff who served on the forum, engaging in a very positive, two-year-long discussion of environmental stewardship. But in the immediate future, we must look at what is technologically feasible to continue to keep our region’s water safe and maintain the ecological health of the watershed. DEQ has the authority, obligation and established regulatory framework to set water quality standards for surface and groundwater discharges. We will be working with them to assess the requirements for surface discharge snowmelt run-off and plant effluent.      

     In the upcoming year, we will be evaluating state-of-the-art methods of advanced wastewater treatment that will exceed the standards, and additional reuse opportunities. But, we cannot sit back and wait any longer. We need to invest in our infrastructure, continue to pursue all options for reuse and maintain a healthy Gallatin River. This is our livelihood, and our mission. We recognize that we are a headwater community and with that comes the added responsibility of ensuring a safe environment for our children and the future residents in Big Sky. 

     Big Sky has maintained its status as a zero-discharge facility for the past 40 years. We are still committed to keep doing what we have consistently done: reclaiming and reusing effluent as much as possible. The uncertainties of running a wastewater system as complex as ours forces us to evaluate groundwater, surface water and snow-making as disposal options as we continue to grow. 

Ron Edwards is general manager of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District. 

 

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