Frequently Asked Questions
Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum Questions
Big Sky’s drinking water comes from a number of ground water aquifers. Some are shallow alluvial aquifers that recharge annually and are closely connected to the streams and rivers while others are bedrock aquifers with longer recharge times.
The Big Sky Water and Sewer District is the biggest water supplier with wells in the alluvial Meadow aquifer (largely under the golf course) and on the mountain. The Yellowstone Club and Moonlight have their own wells and water supply systems. The Canyon and all other areas of Big Sky rely on individual wells or small community systems.
Water is conserved unless it is broken apart by a chemical reaction. The water cycle keeps water on Earth moving through liquid, gas and solid forms indefinitely in a closed loop. We’re all using the same water that has been around for eons.
Wastewater, the water that has been used in homes and businesses, is no different. All of it gets reused one way or another. However, with wastewater, we can make some choices about how that water is treated and reused in its next iteration.
Water that is used inside homes, businesses and industries is used and then goes somewhere to be treated and reclaimed. In Big Sky, there are a number of different methods.
The biggest single wastewater handler is the Big Sky Water and Sewer District. This covers most of the Meadow and Mountain area. The Yellowstone Club and Moonlight have their own systems for wastewater. Several smaller community systems exist including Ophir School, hotels and some subdivisions in the Canyon and other areas of Big Sky. All other residential and commercial users are on individual septic systems.
The “Big Sky area” has been defined as the resort tax boundaries. This area was decided upon after 33 interviews with community stakeholders representing everything from local government to business, agricultural, recreation, and conservation interests. This boundary incorporates most development in mountain, meadow and immediate canyon areas.
There is also a larger “zone of influence” that includes the Madison and Gallatin watersheds. This is important because Big Sky both influences and is influenced by the hydrological, ecological, and economic factors associated with the entire area.
All stakeholders have a responsibility to work together to find solutions and have an equal voice in the process. Decisions are consensus based.
The Gallatin River Task Force (GRTF) has agreed to take on the additional duty of host of the collaborative effort. This means that the GRTF has agreed to act as a point of contact, primary spokes-organization, and fiscal sponsor for the collaborative project support.
The GRTF has exactly the same responsibility as all other stakeholders to find unified solutions to address water resources in Big Sky.
Major funding to support the effort has been from the Big Sky Resort Tax District, Gallatin County and Madison County. The Yellowstone Club, Lone Mountain Land Company and Big Sky Water and Sewer District also donated funds so that an initial assessment of community interest in collaborative water resources management could be completed and the effort launched.
All stakeholders also donate substantial time to this effort, both in coming to meetings and in sharing their expertise.
Will the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum continue once the watershed stewardship plan is complete?
Implementation of the plan will be necessary, but it won’t be exactly this effort in the future. Stakeholders will recommend an implementation plan and ideas for funding recommended work in the watershed stewardship plan.
The Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum is a collaborative approach to identifying challenges and finding solutions. In a collaborative process, stakeholders representing many different perspectives work together to find common ground, agree to goals through consensus and identify actions to more toward those goals.
Participation in a collaboration is voluntary, though some collaboratives agree on actions that are legally binding, such as contracts, ordinances, or new or expanded government oversight.
The Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum, referred to as the “Water Forum” or the “BSSWS Forum” to shorten it, is a community-based collaborative effort to address water resources in the Big Sky area.
The Water Forum stakeholders are working toward a set of recommendations for addressing water resources in a watershed stewardship plan.
Because Big Sky’s water supply comes from many different sources, water quality also is quite variable.
The largest single source of water is the Meadow aquifer and its current quality is excellent. Other aquifers, particularly those in the fractured bedrock, can have taste, order or naturally occurring heavy metals that negatively impact water quality and require treatment methods. Elevated nitrates have been found in some areas of the Canyon and that can be a health concern.
The area south of the turnoff to Highway 64 is in the Yellowstone groundwater control area. Because of the geologic activity in the Yellowstone area, aquifers can and do change.
Water supplies that come from the Big Sky Water and Sewer District and community systems are tested regularly. All residents on individual wells should consider getting their water tested on an annual basis.
Water supply is limited and there are no upstream sources of waters in this headwaters region. Precipitation levels vary greatly due to changes in elevation and mountain aspect, but water is finite and limited compared to wetter regions of the country.
Currently, most people have sufficient water, but growth projections for the area show an increasingly tight supply. The Big Sky Water and Sewer District projects that its current water supply capacity will be reached by as early as 2022.
In Montana, all water users must have a water right for when, where and how much water is used. All water must be used for specific beneficial uses that are outlined in Montana law. In Montana, first in time is first in right.
Either a water user or their water user supplier (if you pay a bill or are a member of a community water system, that entity holds the right) must have a water right in order to use it. A water right holder can also only use the water if no senior rights holder doesn’t need it. The sole exception to this water rights system are exempt ground water wells used for individual residential use.
Water rights in Big Sky are typically far junior to water rights downstream. This means that it is possible that Big Sky water users may not have the ability to use water if other senior users needed it first. Instream flows in the area also have junior water rights in Jack Creek and the Gallatin System. At times, these flow levels are not met.
Both the Gallatin and Madison watersheds are closed basins and all surface water rights and ground water connected to those surface waters have been allocated. No new water rights can be filed anywhere in Big Sky.
Water rights can be bought and moved, but this has been very difficult to accomplish. This is known as mitigation. Very little mitigation has occurred in Big Sky because rights can only be transferred if there are no adverse effects to senior water rights holders. There are also no robust exchange markets established in Montana either, so buying and transferring rights is possible but limited.
Water supply and finite and limited in the Big Sky area and downstream.
Water can be conserved through greater efficiency in use within homes and businesses, and irrigation can be reduced by reducing the amount of lawn, better sprinkler management and/or use of xeriscaping and other forms of drought tolerant plantings. Grey water systems could also be employed in residences of businesses.
Reclaimed water from treated wastewater sources can be reused to water lawns. All or part of the Big Sky Resort golf course, Yellowstone Club, and Spanish Peaks golf club reuse treated wastewater. There is potential to expand this form of reuse. Additional options that could be considered include snowmaking with reused wastewater, or reusing treated wastewater to augment flows in streams at specific times of the year.
Water’s movement across the landscape can be slowed by enhancing wetlands, improving stormwater practices or other forms of temporary storage and slow release. This does not increase the amount of water, but does make more of it available at low water times when it is most needed. There are some issues with water rights laws that make some options difficult or impossible to implement.
Existing water rights can be maximized by perfecting imperfect rights to fully maximize their use. Mitigation, which is buying water rights and transferring its use to Big Sky, could also be used.
Water levels in rivers and streams are quite variable naturally. In spring, high water from meltwater and rain occurs. By September, low water (base flows) occur and these low flows continue through the winter. In most years, at most times, there appears to be sufficient water in the the rivers and streams in the Big Sky area, but drought, climate change and further use of the water available could change that.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks does have water rights for in stream flow to protect fisheries, but those water rights are junior to most other rights in the watersheds. There have been times when water has gone below those levels in streams. The times of biggest concern are in late summer, especially if low flows are coupled with high temperatures, since that is hard on trout and other aquatic life.
Drought and warming trends for temperatures add uncertainty for managing adequate flows. Drought limits total water in the system, so water levels are lower. Rising temperatures mean that snow melt occurs earlier and late summer flows are both lower and warmer.
Human water use and land use management may affect water flows. Pumping ground water could mean that the stream receives less water from those sources, though there is not clear data on this potential interaction yet. Removal of riparian areas and wetlands can alter the amount, timing, and temperature of rivers and streams and the addition of impervious surfaces like parking lots can make water run off faster and become “flashier” as it enters streams.
Snowpack is the primary source of water in the streams and rivers in the Big Sky area. In the spring, melting snow runs into the rivers and streams, leading to peak flows.
Melting snow also sinks into the ground and enters ground water aquifers. Those aquifers contribute to base flows of the streams by adding water to streams in gaining reaches. Stream flows in fall and winter are primarily made up of water coming into streams from aquifers.
Rain also contributes to stream flow in the area.
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