Waterkeeper Challenges Rubber Stamp of New Water Pollution from Big Sky

Agency Violates Law and Ignores Gallatin River Algal Blooms

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper filed a complaint against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for authorizing new wastewater discharges from the Quarry Project, a new major subdivision in Big Sky, without performing the legally-required assessment of cumulative impacts and degradation potential under both the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) and the Montana Water Quality Act (MWQA).

“The Gallatin River has been bearing the brunt of poorly treated wastewater pollution from the Big Sky area for decades. The problem is so bad that it’s reached a tipping point, and now each summer the river turns neon green with algae blooms,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “It’s both unlawful and irresponsible that the Department of Environmental Quality continues to rubber-stamp more development, yet fails to examine how new pollution is likely to worsen river health. Montanans shouldn’t have to wait for a river crisis to see our resource agencies use best-available science and proactively control known pollution sources.”

The Quarry Project is a new, multi-phase residential and commercial development located along Highway 191 in Big Sky at the old gravel pit, just south of Lone Mountain Trail and only 1200 feet from the Gallatin River. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper compiled a detailed fact sheet on the project, highlighting numerous critical flaws in the Department’s Environmental Assessment. 

As a new source of wastewater pollution, DEQ is required by law to assess the impacts new wastewater discharges from the Quarry Project would have on surface waters and perform a robust analysis proving no degradation will occur. Instead of looking at available science showing the harmful effects rampant wastewater and land use patterns are already creating on local water quality, the agency instead only considered the subdivision in isolation, and refused to consider the big picture of cumulative water pollution in Big Sky and the Gallatin River. 

The agency’s head-in-the-sand approach to new development and water pollution review is particularly egregious in light of its June 2022 determination that the middle segment Gallatin River, which flows past Big Sky, is impaired by recurrent, severe nuisance algal blooms and needs a pollution clean up plan. Waterkeeper, with partner organizations, petitioned DEQ to formally declare the middle segment Gallatin impaired at law and to develop an enforceable clean-up plan after the river experienced a fifth consecutive year of severe algal blooms in 2022.

DEQ’s rubber-stamp of the Quarry Subdivision is particularly frustrating given its approval repeats the same mistakes that the 18th Judicial District Court declared unlawful in November 2022. In that court ruling – where Waterkeeper and the Montana Environmental Information Center challenged DEQ’s rubber-stamp of another Big Sky subdivision (Lazy J South)’s wastewater pollution  – the District Court affirmed DEQ’s legal duty to take a hard look at potential cumulative impacts of wastewater pollution on surface water.  

For the Quarry Project, the agency yet again failed to do the proper analysis of cumulative impacts on the Gallatin River despite court rulings and its own findings that river health is compromised by algal blooms related to nutrient pollution.

“The world-class Gallatin River isn’t turning green for St. Patrick’s Day – it’s turning green from unhealthy levels of nutrient pollution related to explosive development. Until an enforceable clean-up plan is implemented, DEQ needs to hit pause on any new wastewater discharge permits that may contribute to degradation of the river,” said Alsentzer.

Later this month, DEQ is expected to finalize an impairment determination for the mainstem Gallatin after years of degradation from nutrient pollution. Waterkeeper will continue to enforce the law and advocate for science-based solutions that put the health of the Gallatin River first.