BY KAREN FILIPOVICH, PROFESSIONAL FACILITATOR

A collaborative group of diverse stakeholders has been meeting since June 2016 to address water resource management in Big Sky. Participants in the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions have defined a vision, goals, and priorities. These articulate a vision of a community that manages its water resources in a way that protect and enhance the health of the rivers and provide for the needs of a growing community.

In August and September, a community survey was distributed and 137 participants from Big Sky and the downstream communities had an opportunity to weigh in on the priorities that were developed in the spring. In every case, community responses rated each priority to be “very important” more often than any other response. The final survey summary will be available soon.

The stakeholders are now formulating ideas for action to meet these goals through coordinated, community-based approaches. In this and the next couple of meetings, participants will:

  • Identify actions that will help fulfill the goals
  • Plan ways to ensure actions are carried out and adapted as needed to ensure progress in the future

At the September meeting, the group reviewed their proposed priority actions for the three focus areas: the ecological health of the river systems, water supply and availability, and wastewater treatment and reuse. In many cases, the stakeholders agreed on next steps for the first two focus areas, and most of this work was completed by June. Identifying priorities in the area of wastewater treatment and reuse has been more difficult.

In September, the group listened to presentations about current and potential technologies from engineers who were expert in wastewater treatment plant analysis to help better understand treatment options. Participants then identified priorities for the wastewater and reuse focus area. The chosen priorities were:

  • Treat wastewater to a high level: Water is a limited resource and nutrients, correctly handled, are a valuable commodity. By treating wastewater to high levels, it opens up more possibilities for reuse options that will be beneficial for the community.
  • Address septic systems: Septic and onsite systems contribute significantly higher nutrient loads than advanced centralized treatment, but are also infrastructure best suited to low-density development. Finding ways to improve existing septic operation and options that will improve technologies in the long term is a priority.
  • Expand use of reclaimed water in irrigation: Right now, all three of the largest treatment systems and at least one small system in Big Sky store water in ponds and then irrigate either golf courses or forest land to reuse water. Where feasible, expanding this capacity could provide water for irrigation, reduce impacts to water supply, and offer more opportunities to reuse treated wastewater.
  • Snowmaking with treated wastewater: Climate change is warming the area, making it more difficult to hold snow in the early and late season. Additionally, water supply is limited. Snowmaking could benefit the community by providing more snowpack to extend the ski season as temperatures warm and slowing water moving through the watershed.

Significant time and resources will be needed to fully implement these priorities, but the expected benefits of improving wastewater treatment and reuse would be a big step toward ensuring both ecological and community benefits.

The next Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum meeting is October 18 from 1-4 pm in the Big Sky Water & Sewer District conference room.

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