Big Sky’s Water Challenges

Almost 50-years the creation of the resort community of Big Sky, Montana, the only thing not changing is the region’s popularity.  According to recent reports the small community is about 50% built-out and, along with the small headwaters town’s explosive growth, comes the inevitable struggle between development and conservation values.
Big Sky, Montana

Big Sky is undoubtedly unique.  Whether it’s thousands of vertical feet of challenging powder skiing, miles of backcountry hiking, horseback, or bike trails, or the nearby Gallatin River, Big Sky’s landscape is truly majestic.

So too with the political landscape.  What was once nearly all public land became, in the late 1800s, ranching and mining claims, and then evolved once more when an enormous grant of the West Fork’s bottom-lands was made to a prominent railroad company.  As years progressed checkerboard federal-state public lands were swapped with private lands, resulting in nearly all three headwaters valleys and the mountains in-between resting in private hands and more specifically, large corporate estates focused on expanding the community’s resort focus.

The Issue:  Big Sky’s Local Waterways are Threatened

Today, development is spread between Gallatin and Madison counties, straddling a main tributary of the Gallatin River – the West Fork Gallatin.  Big Sky’s legacy of intensive land conversion has, unfortunately, directly affected local waterways.

The West Fork and its tributaries are impaired waterways, each year suffering from excessive, unnatural loading of nutrients and sediment (AKA, nitrogen and dirt) largely related to local, ongoing land use transformation.  Unhealthy, unnatural loading of nutrients and sediment decrease the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of local streams, making it harder for fish to survive, making the water less potable, and reducing recreational opportunities.  The local Big Sky watershed group – Gallatin River Task Force – has done a great job of consistently monitoring local waterways and, in turn, this information is invaluable to tracking the factual health – and in many cases the continued decline – of Big Sky’s local streams.

Over the past 15 years several attempts have been made to bring the unique resort community of Big Sky into the new century as regards standardized land use controls and wastewater management: none have truly succeeded in providing lasting solutions, proven by how, today, Big Sky is again confronting the realities of booming growth and the indirect consequences of outdated and outgunned infrastructure and local watershed degradation.

The Opportunity:  Making Big Sky the Lower 48’s Example Resort Community

At Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, as regards Big Sky our primary focus is on protecting and improving the health of the Gallatin River and her local tributaries.  Knowing that previous growth and existing pollution controls have both degraded the local watershed’s carrying capacity and, concurrently, failed to adequately protect local streams and recreational opportunities, we believe that the time is ripe for Big Sky to holistically consider the interrelated issues of wastewater treatment and disposal, water supply, and watershed integrity.

Put another way, the opportunity we have today is to ensure any further development in Big Sky sets the bar high. That steps are taken today to not only use best available science in understanding what steps are necessary to protect and restore local streams, but to then ensure those scientific conclusions are a primary driver and shaper of land use policy for the region.  This inquiry and planning process includes tackling tricky issues, like the long-standing proposition for the Big Sky Water and Sewer District to build a new wastewater treatment plant and discharge directly to the Gallatin River.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is participating as a stakeholder in a community-based collaborative – The Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum – with the intent of ensuring all parties remember, and use, sound science and the law in building consensus on creating a meaningful, practical watershed management plan for the region.  We believe that Big Sky has an enormous opportunity before it; to invest in the future, to pay it forward, to allocate necessary resources and make necessary commitments to environmental protection, now, that will in turn protect the local environment on which its viability rests.