A rainbow trout’s markings allow it to disappear into the crystal-clear waters of the Gallatin River near Swan Creek. This prized fishery is now the focus of debate about whether or not Big Sky should directly discharge treated waste water into the Gallatin.

Questions Remain

And the debate continues over direct discharge into the Gallatin River

In the recently released Big Sky Area Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan, the authors write, “Water Forum stakeholders affirmed that direct discharge of treated wastewater effluent to the river systems would need to provide an ecological benefit and result in no negative impacts to the river systems. However, many Water Forum stakeholders felt there were unanswered questions that would need to be answered before a final determination on the alternative of direct discharge could be made.”

In an appendix to the plan, there are at least 29 “unanswered” questions, including:

•Can direct discharge have a positive impact on the ecological health of the river systems?

•Can direct discharge be conducted in a way that meets requirements for non-degradation and Montana’s nutrient standards?

•What is the cost for technology to treat to a level needed to ensure no negative ecological impact to the river systems?

•Are the costs of building and running a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system that has demonstrated no negative impact to the ecological health of the river systems something community members are willing to pay for?

A variety of voices are now speaking up to help answer questions like these as Big Sky attempts to get its arms around its water supply and water treatment needs. Here’s a look at a few voices in the discussion. 

Packy Cronin, board president, Big Sky Water and Sewer District

Cronin argues that water’s natural course is downstream and there could be unintended consequences of not discharging directly into the river. 

He’s happy with the in-depth study of this problem, but he says of the recently released plan: “They still have us trying to push all the water uphill, which has its obvious challenges. It’s like we have a sink, except for our sink doesn’t have a drain. We have to keep scooping it up and dumping it out the door. Everybody else has a drain.”

That’s a reference to other ski town communities with waste water systems currently discharging into local rivers. 

Cronin wonders, “What’s the cumulative impact? What’s the difference?” of discharge vs. no discharge, if the water being discharged is “cleaner than the water in the river.”

“I want to do the right thing all the way around and I want to do the big picture right thing,” says Cronin. “Is there a way to go to the river in a controlled manner as opposed to a disaster?” In other words, Cronin worries an emphasis on recycling water by making snow and irrigating golf courses will pave the way for over development, causing further issues with waste water. Not to mention the potential for large breaches in ponds and other facilities designed to keep water from going downhill. 

Maria Effertz Hanson, a strategist with AE2S Communications

The Big Sky Water and Sewer District recently approved a $66,902 budget for assistance with public information and education and Effertz Hanson with AE2S is helping lead the effort, though the agreement between AE2S Communications and the district has yet to be finalized. 

For now, according to draft documents released by the district, the plan asks AE2S to: 

•“Educate the public on the need for direct discharge to the Gallatin River, and advanced wastewater treatment capabilities to produce extremely good water quality” 

•“Provide messaging regarding wastewater treatment and disposal needs and environmental health and safety”

•“Maximize credibility of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District staff and board” 

•“Embrace the needs for diverse solutions while maintaining adequate services for current and future residents”

This will include looking at a variety of new technologies, though the district has yet to create a short list of waste water tech companies and the tools that show promise. 

One company trying to make the district’s list is Missoula’s CLEARAS Water Recovery, which uses algae to purify water and create byproducts that can be sold to make rubber-like foam for use in athletic shoes. 

“They are one of many of the alternatives that are going to be looked at,” says Effertz Hanson, who will attend the next water and sewer district board meeting on Feb. 20. 

Josh Seckinger, “Chief Rabble Rouser,” Cottonwood Environmental Law Center

On Jan. 31—just before the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum was scheduled to host its recent public meeting about findings in the Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan—a pair of local conservation groups moved to frame the forum’s discussion around one question: pipe or no pipe?

“This morning, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and the Gallatin Wildlife Association filed a petition with the Board of Environmental Review, asking them to designate the section of the Gallatin River from the Yellowstone Park boundary downstream to the confluence with Spanish Creek, as an Outstanding Resource Water (ORW),” read an email circulated by Seckinger.

The email included a link to an online petition pushed out by Seckinger and others. It now has more than 2,200 signatures and can be found at: bit.ly/ProtectTheGallatin 

When reached by phone the morning after the Jan. 31 Water Solutions Forum meeting, Seckinger expressed frustration about the inability of some to state flatly whether or not they favor direct discharge of wastewater into the Gallatin. 

“They said they couldn’t broach the topic of a pipe going to the river,” sighed Seckinger, who said designating the Gallatin as an ORW is meant to “take that option off the table.”

Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director with American Rivers

The local conservation community is not united around the call for designating the Gallatin River an Outstanding Resource Water, as Bosse explains: “ORW designation is a valid tool for protecting waterways in Montana, but it’s not the path we’re on when it comes to the Gallatin River. I think if we can turn this vision—being the watershed plan—into reality, there will be no need to discharge into the Gallatin River in the future. As long as we stay on this path, we’re going to work closely with the community on strategies everyone can agree on.”

When it comes to protecting the Gallatin, “It’s bigger than just Big Sky. It’s Big Sky, Bozeman, the Gallatin Canyon. It’s the fishing guides, it’s the homeowners in the canyon and the irrigators in the valley below. I think public sentiment in Big Sky is for setting the bar really high when it comes to water use and reuse. We don’t want to be just like every other community that dumps their treated effluent into local rivers.”

In Big Sky, says Bosse, “There are really mixed feelings about growth among locals. But there’s consensus that growth shouldn’t come at the expense of the Gallatin and other local streams.”

Want your voice heard in the ongoing discussion about water in Big Sky? Send us a letter to the editor or guest opinion by emailing editor@lonepeaklookout.com

 

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