Big Sky’s Big Water Challenges

For the past 6 months Upper Missouri Waterkeeper has been an official stakeholder in the ‘Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum.’  The Forum was created as a means to gather community input on how Big Sky can best address the diverse challenges arising from its growth and, dare we say, success as an outdoors-based town.

Aerial view of Big Sky, Montana

Now, after several informational meetings involving presentations on regional growth & development, the health (or lack thereof) of local watersheds, wastewater treatment & disposal, and water availability, the rubber is about to hit the road: will stakeholders use science, apply the law, and rise to the challenge of making Big Sky an example of how a resort-community can balance prosperity while protecting its water resources?

Our interest in the Forum and the ongoing stakeholder meetings comes from a simple interest: making sure Big Sky takes the requisite steps under law to protect local and downstream water resources.  The issue of wastewater disposal (i.e., let’s not discharge wastewater into the Gallatin to accommodate growth, please…) is an obvious hot topic of concern, but more subtle is the relationship between wastewater treatment, fragmented land ownership, and a finite drinking water supply.  From our water quality/river protection foci, several facts are apparent and, in our opinion, should be primary drivers in future decisionmaking as regards holistic management of Big Sky’s water resources:

  • Local rivers and streams (W. Fork Gallatin and other tributaries) are already degraded and suffering from too much nutrient, sediment, and temperature pollution.  This means a starting point in any policy discussion must include a plan to address existing, uncontrolled/poorly regulated activities that are contributing to local waterway pollution. Presently, there is no enforceable plan to ensure pollution reductions occur.
  • Existing wastewater treatment from the largest facility – the Big Sky Water & Sewer District – is predicated upon disposal via golf course irrigation in perpetuity and, in fact, big landowners want to increase disposal via goal course irrigation.  One might think “gee, that’s smart – they’re re-using treated wastewater to grow grass.” However, the Forum’s scientific presentations by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology also confirmed that, in particular for the lower Meadow area, there is a direct hydrologic connection between groundwater and the nearby W. Fork and, as discussed above, the W. Fork is polluted from too much nutrients (i.e., stuff that creates algal blooms and lowers water quality for fish).  To us, this means the status-quo needs to change, and a new primary disposal method should be developed.
  • Drinking water supplies are finite, and largely come from one aquifer in the lower Meadow, and this aquifer is highly transmissive, meaning it can be contaminated by nearby, persistent, large-scale discharges of pollution. Based on science presented at the Forum, threatening sources of pollution could include deep-well injections of wastewater, or even long-term and/or increased golf course irrigation from nutrients. Any new water resources management paradigm must prioritize conservation of drinking water aquifers and contemplate efficiency incentives.

This list isn’t exhaustive or complete, and there are a ton more details to each of these topics, but it is a starting point of hot-ticket issues.

So what’s next?  Well, on Dec. 6th the Forum is hosting a public meeting, AKA a Town Hall Meeting at Buck’s T-4, from 4-6pm.  We’ll be attending and will be very interested in hearing how information is presented and whether the above issues, among others, are candidly and accurately discussed.  Upper Missouri Waterkeeper has continued its participation in the Forum because, so far, it has been a valuable and transparent mechanism for gathering and educating a diverse group of stakeholders on complex issues, as well as a clearinghouse for science and current economic/developmental/environmental trends.

We expect the Forum to begin a very candid discussion of new, holistic water resources management paradigms in 2017 and will do our part to ensure best-available science and the law (which is to say tenents of clean water law) frame discussions.  If you are interested in learning more about these issues and Waterkeeper’s role and concerns, please email Guy@UpperMissouriWaterkeeper.org