At the foundation of Big Sky’s success and growth are two core elements: clean water and healthy landscapes. As the region’s population continues to grow, the question is whether Big Sky leadership will do it right, take responsibility for their success, and ensure that growth does not bring with it new harmful pollution and environmental degradation.
The recent Yellowstone Club wastewater pond rupture, which released approximately 30 million gallons of treated wastewater into headwater creeks and the Gallatin River, represents the tip of the iceberg as regards three water challenges confronting Big Sky.
The first water issue is the slow decline of local waterways. Sitting astride the Madison Mountain Range headwater, creeks, springs and snowmelt running from the landscapes of Big Sky flow into both the Madison River and the Gallatin River and in turn, land use in this area directly affects the quality, quantity, and timing of flows to each river. As one recent GIS survey found, between 1990-2005 more than 25 percent of privately owned Big Sky land changed from forest or meadows to roads, houses, buildings, parking lots or like-developed surfaces. The effect of cumulative landscape change -- from permeable to impermeable and disturbed -- is that the majority of waterways within the W. Fork Gallatin watershed are unhealthy and classified as “impaired” because they do not fully support aquatic life.
Just as landscapes have been transformed to encourage development, so too has Big Sky’s second water issue emerged: a secure water supply. The majority of potable water used in upper Big Sky and resort areas comes from a deep-well aquifer seated in bedrock far below the Meadow. However, this primary aquifer has a quantified recharge rate, and current demands are approaching its recharge limit, meaning the availability of water supply for future growth is in question. Moving forward, exactly where will Big Sky get its water if projected population increases ring true?
The third water resource issue confronting Big Sky is wastewater treatment and disposal. Without a centralized public works agency serving – or managing – septic, sewer, and infrastructure needs for the community, Big Sky has a distinctly fragmented and ineffective wastewater management status quo.
Most focus today rests on the primary wastewater provider in the area – the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District -- because of a perfect storm of events: its infrastructure and treatment technologies are outdated and its disposal capacity is nearly tapped, yet plans are in the works to double Big Sky’s population within the next ten years. The District cannot simply expand its current operations because all wastewater disposal in Big Sky is seasonal, based on a finite amount of golf course irrigation available during summer, and pond storage during winter, with no direct discharge to waterways allowed.
No capacity for future growth, deteriorating existing infrastructure (such as a wastewater pond’s shelf life), and no ability to handle emergency storage during the heavy-use winter season, are key issues prompting recent rumors that the District will seek a pollution permit to discharge wastewater directly into one of the N. Rockies’ most pristine blue-ribbon trout streams, the Gallatin River.
Coming full circle, the question becomes “will Big Sky pay it forward and invest in innovative water re-use, recycling, treatment and management strategies that best protect and improve the waterways and landscapes on which its success depends?” Or will expediency, bottom-lines, and traditional “pipe it to the river” thinking rule the day?
If ever there was a community who could “do it right,” it is Big Sky. Whether resident or visitor, everyone appreciates this wonderful community’s spectacular, unique outdoor heritage and sense of place. So too do downstream businesses, communities, and users depend on the same landscape-based economy premised on healthy, clean water.
Big Sky should invest its resources and energy in a new management paradigm that goes far above and beyond the bare minimum. By implementing new, cutting-edge water treatment technology and a suite of science-based best management strategies, Big Sky can set fair standards of care and clear expectations for the future, while protecting and enhancing its most cherished resources: clean, healthy waterways and landscapes. The public and private good are both served and strengthened by making these commitments. We should ask no less from ourselves and each other.