Big Sky’s Future & the Gallatin River

The reality of living in Bozeman today is that the landscape is constantly changing with growth, sprawl, and expansion. There are several environmental non-profits that are actively working to protect our natural resources from irresponsible development. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is on the front lines of water conservation issues throughout the Upper Missouri River Watershed, working with the various interest groups involved to bring about responsible resource management and conservation. The issues in and around Big Sky involving water use and discharge plans are the greatest threat to the Gallatin River watershed right now.

7 Reasons to Care About Big Sky’s Water Challenges

1) Big Sky, MT straddles the Madison Mtn Range; it contributes headwater flows to – and directly affects tributaries – of the Gallatin River and Madison River.

2) In the 40+ years since Chet Huntley began the Big Sky, MT experiment, the quality and character of local landscapes and waterways have significantly changed.

3) Big Sky’s economic success and countless local jobs rest directly upon the region’s promise of a clean, healthy environment.

4) The region’s history with water resources is not pretty: lawsuits, building moratoriums, illegal water pollution, and millions of dollars later, Big Sky remains unincorporated, without a public works agency able to protect safe drinking water, local streams, or wildlife from pollution, a place where most land use and policy decisions are made by private developers, big land owners, and investment firms.

5) Big Sky is projected to roughly double in size by 2025. Alongside ongoing, intense, and quick growth comes growing pains, particularly for local waterways, several of which are already degraded by nutrient and sediment pollution.

6) Discussions and decisions are happening now regarding how the largest regional water treatment entity – the Big Sky Water & Sewer District – will handle the predicted doubling of Big Sky, including whether the District will seek a wastewater discharge permit for the Gallatin River.

7) Stopping further land or water degradation can happen only with informed citizen and elected official engagement.

How are the Gallatin & Madison threatened by Big Sky?

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. Fast-forward to today, and 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.

1. Growth Beyond Capacity: The Threat of A Direct Wastewater Discharge to the Gallatin River
Within the Gallatin watershed, the Big Sky County Water & Sewer District is the largest provider of wastewater treatment. 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 Gallatin 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.

One issue confronting the Water & Sewer District is the outdated nature of current treatment technology and infrastructure. The existing works were designed nearly two decades ago to meet basic treatment levels, whereas treatment works today regularly achieve far more stringent water protection standards. The second major issue confronting the District is finite storage capacity: to be clear, there is no present-day discharge of wastewater to surface water allowed in Big Sky. During summer months the District works with Big Sky Resort and the Yellowstone Club to land apply treated wastewater on golf courses where it is consumptively used, whereas during winter months the District stores wastewater in holding ponds.

With existing winter wastewater storage ponds nearing total capacity, the District must decide how it will accommodate future growth – which it is legally bound to do by contracts executed years, if not decades, earlier. For years there has been a heated debate about whether the District should simply build a pipe to the nearby Gallatin River and directly discharge its wastewater. A direct discharge to the Gallatin is hotly contested because doing so would be the first significant discharge to the river after Yellowstone National Park, the pollutants discharged could negatively affect downstream water quality and fishing opportunities, and last but not least because alternative technology and recycling strategies exist that could better serve Big Sky – and downstream water and community – needs.

Adding a twist to Big Sky’s water dilemma is the adjacent, but often neglected, Canyon area, which has no centralized wastewater treatment facility or managing entity. Individual operators and businesses are outside the District’s boundaries and thus, truly, in the Wild West. 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. Scientific studies have proven that current Canyon development already contributes more nutrient pollution to the mainstem Gallatin – pollutants that reduce water column oxygen for fish and can cause toxic algal blooms – than development up in the Meadow and Resort areas. 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.

2. Death By A Thousand Cuts
Sitting astride the Madison Mountain Range, headwater creeks, seeps, springs, and snowmelt running from the landscapes of Big Sky flow into both the Madison River and the Gallatin River. Land-use in these two watersheds directly affects the quality, quantity, and timing of flows to each river system. A notable consequence of unincorporation and fragmented water resources authority is sprawl development and the resulting slow decline of local waterway health.

Sadly, 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. These streams suffer from unhealthy, unnatural amounts of nutrients, sediment, and temperature variations, largely a result of cumulative development. This means keynote, native species, such as the genetically-pure Westslope Cutthroat Trout – long the emphasis of expensive restoration projects – struggle to survive with degraded habitat and water quality.

3. Too Many Straws In The Glass: The Challenge of Finite Water Supply
The availability and security of water supply is Big Sky’s third 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 Big Sky aquifer has a quantified recharge rate, and current demands are approaching its recharge limit. Likewise, all surface water withdrawals are already documented with water rights and, more often than not, downstream water users in the lower Gallatin Valley have a right to local water ahead of development interests in Big Sky. A very real question moving forward is exactly where Big Sky will get its water if projected population increases and doubled development estimates ring true.

Protecting Downstream Rivers and the Fisheries, Business, and Communities They Support

When a winter wastewater storage pond broke and spilled 30 million gallons of effluent into the Gallatin during winter 2016, Waterkeeper took a hard look at how this rapidly growing resort community was handling its pollution controls, discovering in the process that the wastewater pond spill was just the tip of the iceberg for water resource challenges in Big Sky. Since then Upper Missouri Waterkeeper has bird-dogged decisionmaking about how this community plans to grow and, in particular, how Big Sky choose to handle wastewater treatment, disposal, and sprawl development in the coming years.

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.

So, how can we safeguard downstream waterways from Big Sky’s explosive growth?

  • Upgrade Existing Wastewater Treatment Technology
  • Implement New Water Re-use and Recycling Policies
  • Address chronic pollution from sprawling septic in the Canyon
  • Control Widespread Stormwater Pollution & Require Green Infrastructure
  • Mandatory Waterway Monitoring & Targeted Restoration Projects

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