Protecting the Gallatin in the Face of Big Sky’s Big Growth

At its most basic, the central issue confronting Big Sky is whether growth will protect the very foundation of this community’s success: clean water and healthy landscapes. The question is whether Big Sky will do it right, take responsibility for its success, and ensure that growth does not bring with it new pollution and environmental degradation.

Decisions made over the next year in Big Sky will ripple dramatically beyond the fabric of this small mountain town with consequences for downstream river health, water users, businesses, and economies in the Madison and Gallatin valleys.

Big Sky: An Abbreviated Water History

 The 2016 Yellowstone Club wastewater pond rupture, which released approximately 30 million gallons of treated wastewater and untold tons of sediment into small headwater creeks and ultimately the Gallatin River, represents just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the water resource challenges in Big Sky. Often lumped together with the sleeping dragon of the potential for a direct-discharge wastewater pipe into the Gallatin River, wastewater management is but one of three critical water issues confronting this unique headwaters community.

Waterways and landscapes of Big Sky have dramatically changed over the past half-century. What began as a logging project evolved into Chet Huntley’s modest resort dream of the 1970s. Through the 1980’s and 1990’s land consolidations, multi-million dollar investments, and speculation led to the first major roadblock of development when the state of Montana, seeing widespread water pollution increasing from diffuse septic systems and development, imposed a de facto building moratorium when it required new management, spurring creation of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District.

This quasi-public works agency had the herculean task of building sewer and potable water infrastructure serving the majority of the Meadow area and Big Sky Resort but, notably, was not given land-use authority over construction or stormwater management, nor did its boundary include the Canyon stretch of Big Sky. Indeed, the limited authority and scope of the district appears at least partially a result of no centralized government and the sentiments of rugged individualism and laisse-faire government held by key Big Sky landowners and stakeholders.

And here lies a critical fact underlying many of Big Sky’s water challenges: folks may not be aware that Big Sky remains an unincorporated community without city government, nor a holistic public works agency responsible for the traditional public health and safety issues commonly associated with water pollution.

The saga of Big Sky’s unincorporated status is another tale, yet relevant here because without centralized government, many state and federal laws that would otherwise require planning, management, and enforcement to protect items of the public good (such as water pollution and land use controls, infrastructure investment, transportation plans & development standards among others), either do not directly apply or are imposed without any type of meaningful accountability framework.

A notable consequence of remaining unincorporated with rapid development and fragmented water resources management is the first major water issue at-hand: 

Big Sky’s local creeks and streams are slowly declining with worse water quality.

Big Sky is unique for many reasons, not the least of which is its geography. Sitting astride the Madison Mountains, headwater creeks, seeps, springs, and snowmelt running from the landscapes of Big Sky flow into both the Madison River and the Gallatin River.  These two counties also share basic land use control and taxation of the region. Land use in these two watersheds directly affects the quality, quantity, and timing of flows to each river.

As one recent GIS survey found, between 1990-2005 more than 25% of privately-owned Big Sky land changed from forest or meadows to roads, houses, buildings, parking lots or like developed surfaces.  The change from undeveloped and porous to developed and impervious surfaces is critically important to understanding why so many headwater tributaries in Big Sky simply are not healthy, and why change is needed.

The majority of waterways and streams within the West Fork Gallatin watershed (the mainstem W. Fork and its upstream tributaries) are unhealthy and classified as “impaired” at law because they do not fully support aquatic life.

Science has long shown the strong correlation between the amount of imperviousness (a function of how developed a landscape becomes) in a drainage basin and the health of local streams. When sprawled development and associated landscape transformation occurs it means more pollutants – like nutrients, sediment, oil, grease – enter local streams and creeks, degrading local water quality. Keynote native aquatic species such as famed bug hatches and the genetically-pure Westslope Cutthroat Trout – long the emphasis of expensive restoration projects – struggle to survive with degraded habitat and water quality.

Make no mistake – the cumulative result of largely unregulated Big Sky development is the slow but sure transformation of wooded areas and sagebrush meadows into developed and impervious surfaces, with local streams and creeks experiencing the negative water quality consequences that flow from these activities.

And, just as landscapes have been transformed to allow new development, so too has the demand for a secure, safe water supply increased.

The availability and security of water supply is Big Sky’s second major water challenge.

The majority of potable water used in the Meadow and resort areas comes from either small private wells or the deep-well aquifer seated far below Big Sky deep in bedrock. However, the primary Big Sky aquifer has a quantified recharge rate, and current demands are approaching its recharge limit.  The most productive wells serving the Big Sky Water & Sewer District system are located in a meadow adjacent to the West Fork, near Big Sky Meadow Village. There are currently five production wells in the meadow area. In some areas within the water system boundary, and outside of the boundary, hundreds of individual wells derive water from a variety of aquifers, predominately bedrock aquifers. Severe water-level declines have occurred in some areas, causing residents to deepen or replace their wells.

Groundwater is such a big focus because, you guessed it, all surface water rights (yes, people own the right to use water in Montana) are allocated in this region. In fact, the only way the prestigious Yellowstone Club exists today is based on its longstanding contract with the Big Sky Water & Sewer District to store and dispose of wastewater in return for a guaranteed supply of potable water. If there’s no water, there won’t be homes, let alone businesses or a thriving economic base.

A very real question moving forward is exactly where Big Sky will get its water if projected population increases ring true.

Last but not least is Big Sky’s third water resources challenge, the proverbial white elephant in the room:

Wastewater Treatment and Disposal

With Big Sky now grown to over 2,000 year-round residents, plus over a half-million visitors at Big Sky Resort alone each winter, the necessity of both reliable water sources and water pollution controls stand front and center.  What makes these goals so difficult is Big Sky’s unincorporated status; there is not a centralized public works agency serving – or managing – septic, sewer, and infrastructure needs for the community, or planning for the collective future. Rather, there is a distinctly fragmented and ineffective wastewater management status quo.

Within the West Fork Gallatin watershed, the Big Sky County Water & Sewer District is the largest provider of wastewater treatment and disposal. Its service area includes Big Sky Resort and Spanish Peaks along with businesses, private residences, and homeowner associations. Yellowstone Club is currently constructing a wastewater treatment plant for its new lodge, while individual lots have onsite septic. Outside of the district’s area, such as the Canyon, wastewater is treated by small community systems and individual onsite septic. Within the Jack Creek watershed, Moonlight Basin provides wastewater treatment to most of the development, though some residences have onsite septic.

Wastewater: the Achilles Heel of Big Sky Development

When it comes to wastewater management in Big Sky the first pressing issue confronting the District is the outdated nature of its current technology and its infrastructure.  Existing treatment works were designed nearly two decades ago to meet very basic treatment levels designed solely for using treated wastewater as fertilizer on golf courses, whereas treatment works today regularly achieve far more stringent treatment that better protect the environment.  The outdated nature of existing wastewater treatment at the BSWSD means any type of outside the box thinking for the future – such as water re-use, recycling, or disposal – is complicated by weak treatment levels and an outdated, under-gunned facility.

Equally troubling, existing wastewater disposal in Big Sky consists of what can be aptly named a great ‘Band-Aid’ approach where wastewater is stored in various ponds over the course of each winter, and the sole means of disposal is land application to either golf courses or forests, and only during warm weather.

A little backstory is needed.

Soon after its creation in the early 1990s it became evident that the Big Sky Water and Sewer District would need to increase its treatment capacity and disposal. Doing so in a traditional manner meant obtaining a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit authorizing a surface water discharge from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. After applying for, receiving, and being sued over an initial surface water discharge permit the district never built a direct discharge system and let its permit sit un-used and expire, and instead entered into contracts with the Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort to land apply treated wastewater on golf courses thus solving, at least temporarily, the dilemma of wastewater disposal in Big Sky.

For its part the Yellowstone Club secured valuable access to finite drinking water supplies from the District, but was required to build and maintain wastewater ponds to store effluent during busy winter months when land application was impossible, and dispose of it during warm weather. Fast forward to the present and we have the District still treating the lion’s share of wastewater in the region, land applying treated wastewater on golf courses during summer months, and storing wastewater in the now notorious wastewater ponds during winter months. To be clear, there is no present-day discharge of wastewater to surface water allowed in Big Sky.

Up until perhaps the Great Recession, the delicately balanced Big Sky wastewater system worked and development continued as usual, which is to say fastso long as the economy was booming. Two recent developments changed this status quo such that now the District – and larger community of Big Sky – must decide how it will grow and what its local streams and rivers health is worth. Literally.

  • First, about a decade ago scientific stream health assessments of the West Fork watershed indicated that the practice of land applying wastewater to golf courses – in particular, the Meadow Golf Course – was in fact resulting in saturation of subsurface groundwater with nutrients carried in wastewater, and this groundwater was reaching the W Fork Gallatin River, exacerbating its existing pollution problems. This dilemma has only gotten worse as the strain on the District to dispose of more wastewater during a short warm-weather window has correspondingly become heavier and heavier.
    • This means that at minimum the District needs to work diligently to stop groundwater-based nutrient pollution entering local surface waters via land application of wastewater to golf courses. The easiest manner to do so is, of course, less land application to golf courses; yet less application means even less storage available during the busy winter season, and thus even a simple tweak to one disposal process benefiting local water quality would actually intensify pressure on the Big Sky Water and Sewer District to determine exactly how it will meet future needs in a responsible and effective manner.
  • Second, “how” Big Sky addresses wastewater disposal associated with new development is important because rapid growth continues! The District is in a tough position because since the Great Recession major stakeholders have made clear their plans to build-out Big Sky by 2035. Using rough numbers from 2015/16 reports we are talking about a cumulative growth of wastewater production in upper Big Sky from the present average of 160+ Million Gallons Year (MGY) to around 340 MGY. On the flip side, present day storage capacity for wastewater during winter (when no land application disposal is available) is around 238+/- MGY (with 50 MG storage is not yet online), and summertime disposal is estimated at a maximum of 185 MGY.

These numbers and facts all point to an inevitable conclusion: the current wastewater management system is not only precariously balanced on cooperation and precision among separate entities in Big Sky, but also that the District and its partners will not be able to effectively store or safely dispose of wastewater from Big Sky’s growth in the foreseeable future. Change is needed, and soon.

Adding a twist to the wastewater and development dilemma in Big Sky, anticipated growth does not address the Canyon area, which studies estimate produces around 125 MGY wastewater (compared to the ~180 MGY currently produced in upper Big Sky), and likewise this area has no centralized treatment or coherent, organizational structure.

Individual operators and businesses are outside the district’s boundaries and thus, truly, in the Wild West and discharge their wastewater into local groundwater in systems that do very little to remove the harmful pollutants that cause or contribute to nasty algae blooms and poor water quality in the Gallatin.  The status quo low-density development and individual septic systems directly adjacent to the Gallatin River is at least an equal threat to water quality as the quandary of wastewater disposal upstream.

Whether from an ecological, policy, or community development perspective, all parties should agree that solutions and new wastewater management paradigms must address the Canyon area in addition to pressing concerns in upper Big Sky.

The Summer 2018 Bright-Green Gallatin Algal Bloom

The Gallatin River and W. Fork and S. Fork Gallatin rivers experienced large, miles-long, persistent algal blooms during summer 2018.

First, a little science. Algae occurs naturally in most bodies of freshwater. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper performed several pollution patrols during the summer 2018 blooms and sampled water quality and algae, and verified that the Gallatin’s blooms are not the dangerous, toxic type of algal bloom (cyanobacteria or blue-green algae) but are filamentous, commonly observed when unnatural nutrient loading occurs in a freshwater system.

While algae blooms are normally fairly harmless, the right combination of warm water, high nutrient levels, and sunlight can cause unnatural, noxious algal blooms.  These blooms damage aquatic ecosystems by blocking sunlight and depleting oxygen that other organisms need to survive, at their worst killing off bug life, causing fish kills and harming animals that ingest the water.  Human activity often triggers or accelerates algal blooms in freshwater systems by increasing nutrient loading. For example, in rural areas agricultural runoff from fields or animal lots washes pollutants into the water. In urbanized or developed areas, nutrient sources can include treated wastewater from septic systems and treatment plants, lawn irrigation, and stormwater runoff.

Montana scientists know that most ecoregions in our state rely on a delicate balance of nutrients to remain healthy and free from noxious algae.  For example, we know that the Gallatin watershed is volcanic ecoregion with naturally occurring, elevated levels of phosphorus; this means that when it comes to algal blooms the “limiting nutrient” (the chemical whose consistent addition can give rise to noxious algal bloom) is nitrogen.  Montana scientists at DEQ also know that the water quality criteria – the concentrations of Total Nitrogen and Total Phosphorus, which represent natural conditions necessary to preserving a healthy Gallatin free from noxious algal growth, are around .03 – .05 mg/L TP and .3 mg/L TN.

These ideal natural background nutrient concentrations for local waterways are pretty darn stringent, and for good reason: a wide body of scientific evidence suggests that the Gallatin (among other Montana waterways) are clean and very sensitive; they cannot tolerate abnormal nutrient additions without becoming unhealthy.

Put in context, the Gallatin literally flows out of Yellowstone National Park and the first major population center and development is, you guessed it, Big Sky. Also relevant here to the summer 2018 Gallatin algae bloom is a simple, often overlooked fact: a key sign of an unhealthy, imbalanced river system is the growth of noxious filamentous algae. Scientists  know the S Fork and the W Fork already have unnaturally high levels of nutrients (as high as 3 mg/L TN)and exhibit unnaturally high nutrient loading each summer season. And now as many saw last summer the mainstem Gallatin is starting to be affected, a sure sign that nutrient pollution is reaching an ecological tipping point in Big Sky.

Algal blooms are reason for concern even when they are not toxic because enough noxious algal growth can not only be a nuisance for recreation (imagine trying to cast your fly line through, or jump into, a big algae mat), but if prolonged and widespread, algal blooms can start to affect bug life and create unnaturally warm temperatures, which in turn will both affect fish populations.  Less bugs equals less food for fish, and warmer water temperatures mean harder for our game and native fish populations to thrive.  Most MT trout, for example, don’t like temperatures much above 65 degrees, and 70 degree water and above can statistically decrease fish viability, even if caught by an angler and released. It is the progressive, cumulative effects of nutrient pollution and algal blooms that remains of concern; this isn’t a smoking gun scenario, but more akin to a mystery novel where we must studiously track down signs and apprehend the killer.

The bigger picture of last summer’s Gallatin algal bloom presents three key facts that should influence decisions about how Big Sky grows and plans for the future: (a) the Gallatin and its Big Sky tributaries experienced prolonged, severe unnatural algal blooms, (b) algal blooms are the result of unnatural, typically man-caused additions of pollutants, and (c) the main verified sources of nutrient pollution in Big Sky are from development, private septic, and wastewater applied to golf courses.

Gallatin River Algal Bloom, Aug 10, 2018

The question therefore becomes, if we know our present way of doing business is literally degrading our cherished local waterways, what will it take to protect our landscapes and rivers from pollution and further decline?

Unique Solutions For A Unique Community

 Despite the technical and complex nature of Big Sky’s water resource challenges, there is reason to be excited.

Why? Big Sky has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this small, headwaters community to work together and protect the foundation of its success – clean water and healthy landscapes – while simultaneously strengthening its strong sense of identity and place. So what’s to be done?

 As a starting point, the community should invest in new and revamped infrastructure and adopt revised plans for treating, storing, and disposing of wastewater now and into the future. We believe most in Big Sky, and those downstream, would agree that any new management scenario should prioritize protecting exiting, high-quality water alongside plans to restore currently degraded water. Likewise, new operations should include requirements to utilize best available technologies that treat wastewater in the form of state-of-the-art, larger-capacity wastewater treatment plants.

“State of the art” means technology and infrastructure capable of treating wastewater to extremely low pollutant levels, including the big ticket pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and eColi, as well as emerging concerns such as pharmaceuticals and more esoteric pollutants. At the same time, this technology should be built to appropriate scale and capable of handling anticipated growth plus a margin of error.  If Big Sky does this visionary type of investment it will create flexibility for the District to address its pressing wastewater treatment concerns, and its water supply challenges, and local waterway pollution threats.

For instance, treating wastewater to limits of technology creates new utility in that it transforms a liability (e.g., polluting wastewater) into an asset (clean, recycled water). These state-of-the-art wastewater management techniques are colloquially known as wastewater recycling and advanced potable re-use and are precisely the type of unique, outside-the-box solutions that can create win-win scenarios for Big Sky, its landscapes, and those downstream.

Advanced wastewater treatment and potable reuse and recycling represent engineering and infrastructure investments that can open the door to snowmaking and snow storage projects, which can bolster snowpacks and contribute much needed flows to downstream users during critical seasons. Likewise, potable reuse and recycling technologies can make treated wastewater the highest quality (close to ambient water quality) and bolster the finite water supply from Big Sky’s sole aquifer. Used in conjunction with new water conservation and efficiency programs, potable reuse and water recycling can “make water work more than once” for an arid community already challenged by limited water rights, limited drinking water supply, limited wastewater disposal options, and the undeniable effects of climate change.

The Future: Going Big in Big Sky

During winter 2019 the Big Sky Water & Sewer District will be deciding exactly which of these opportunities and challenges it will tackle over the next decade.  Because upgrading wastewater and drinking water facilities are prohibitively expensive it almost goes without saying that the decisions made this winter represent a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to put Big Sky on the right path, a path that prioritizes people and the environment over profits.

If ever there was a community who could “do it right,” it is Big Sky. Every resident lives in this wonderful community for its spectacular, unique outdoor heritage and sense of place. While Big Sky is not the same as it was twenty-years ago, it still is a far cry from the overbuilt, burgeoning resort cities of Vail or Aspen. In fact, the lessons of those resort towns – and their notable failures in protecting local waterways and landscapes from overuse and degradation – should inform Big Sky’s next steps.

Big Sky should willingly, and with great intent, invest its resources and energy in a new water resources management paradigm that goes far above and beyond the bare minimum. By paying it forward, invest in the future, and utilize a suite of best management practices, new technology, and upgraded infrastructure to establish a responsible and creative new water resources management system that sets fair standards of care and clear expectations for the future, while protecting the area’s most cherished resource: clean, healthy waterways and landscapes.

The public good and private good are both served and strengthened by making these commitments in the future, and in our local waterways. We should ask no less from ourselves and each other.


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