The Department of Environmental Quality gave the Yellowstone Club a green light last week to use reclaimed wastewater to make snow in an effort to bolster stream flows and reduce nutrient loading in the Gallatin River.
The private ski resort near Big Sky initially applied for a permit in March 2020, and was issued an initial draft permit notice this March. The DEQ announced on Tuesday that it had given the plans final approval.
The Yellowstone Club is the first resort in Montana to apply and be approved to use treated wastewater for snowmaking with the DEQ.
The permit allows the club to direct more than 25 million gallons of treated and disinfected wastewater toward snowmaking operations at the base of Eglise Mountain.
The reclaimed water will be used for the base layer of snowpack, said Rich Chandler, environmental manager for the Yellowstone Club.
Then natural snow, or snow made out of freshwater, would be added on top of the base layer throughout the season.
Recycling wastewater will decrease the need for freshwater for snowmaking.
It should also preserve water quality by reducing concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria in snowmelt that makes its way downstream, according to DEQ.
Excessive nutrients in streams can lead to algae and water quality issues.
The Yellowstone Club will likely roll out the new system in fall 2022, going into winter 2023, Chandler said. Some initial construction on the project is expected to begin next summer.
Using the new system will increase the cost of snowmaking by about 15% to 20%, Chandler said.
The DEQ requires the Yellowstone Club to monitor wastewater for E. coli prior to snowmaking, monitor the snow for chlorine levels and check nearby creeks for nutrients, ammonia and chlorophyll A.
That won’t be a significant increase in effort, as the club already does some monitoring, Chandler said.
The club also already uses reclaimed wastewater to irrigate its golf courses.
“We already have monitoring in place for other irrigation applications, but we’ll be doing a little more,” he said.
About 80% of the treated wastewater used for the project will come from the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, and another 20% would come from the Yellowstone Club’s own wastewater treatment plant, according to the Yellowstone Club.
Several environmental groups in the area have backed the proposal, including the Gallatin River Task Force and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
The Big Sky area has sought new ways to dispose of wastewater and to preserve its watershed. The Gallatin River Task Force studied the use of reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking in 2011.
In 2017 the task force formed the Big Sky Watershed Forum. It listed snowmaking with reclaimed water as a top solution for managing and treating the town’s water while protecting the watershed.
The increase in snowpack from the reclaimed water should correspond to an increase in in-stream flows later in the season. Studies on the club show the method could equate to a 25 million gallon net benefit to the watershed, according to the Yellowstone Club.
In the U.S., 12 other ski resorts in eight states use treated wastewater for snowmaking.
“It has the potential to provide increased protection for streams while also providing a necessary function for the Yellowstone Club,” said Jon Kenning, DEQ water protection bureau chief, in a news release.