Upper Gallatin Drought/Water Supply Planning


The Gallatin River Task Force has engaged in a drought resiliency planning effort in the Upper Missouri River basin since January 2015. Our local planning effort is part of a national pilot water supply planning project.

The National Drought Resilience Partnership selected the Upper Missouri basin to lead a grassroots water supply planning demonstration project. The Upper Missouri basin is uniquely positioned because the basin is closed to new water right appropriations and the region has a long history of frequent and severe droughts. The demonstration project includes federal and state partners, regional organizations, local watershed groups, and conservation districts across eight sub-watersheds within the basin.

The communities living in the Gallatin and Madison watersheds are working on four drought planning efforts. Each drought plan will capture the needs and experiences of the local communities from a variety of water use settings, including tourism, recreation, and agriculture.

The drought planning effort will build drought resilience to enhance community preparedness for drought by providing tools for drought assessment and monitoring, building local and regional capacity, and implementing on-the-ground projects to build long-term drought resilience.

The goal of drought planning is to break the hydro-illogical cycle. Photo from: National Drought Mitigation Center

Why Big Sky?

Big Sky faces a unique set of challenges that stress the capacity of our water supplies to accommodate both community growth and climate change:

  1. Big Sky is an unincorporated township, located within two watersheds and two counties.
  2. Big Sky is largely privately-owned with many absentee homeowners and a commuter workforce of mostly seasonal employees.
  3. The Upper Missouris River basin is closed to new water appropriations, limiting both surface and groundwater supplies to recharge via snowpack.
  4. Snowpack is predicted to decrease over time due to changes in climate predicted by the Montana Climate Assessment.

These qualities make Big Sky what it is today, a place where people love to live and visit because of the natural amenities and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors from the mountains to the river. On the other hand, these qualities can also present challenges in accountability and implementation of new practices. Forging new partnerships among all community groups is critical to implement sustainable measures that will allow us to continue to enjoy this place, forever.

A Process to Build Resilience

There is no official drought resilience planning framework. Each local watershed coordinator has the freedom to approach drought and water supply planning in ways that are best suited to their watershed and community. The Montana Bureau of Reclamation and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation have proposed a locally-driven set of tasks to guide the planning process with a fundamental element of engaged stakeholder participation.

The Task Force first engaged the Big Sky community in the drought planning process by a distributing a Drought Awareness Survey online and at outreach events while recruiting local participants to serve in an Upper Drought/Water Supply Focus Group. The focus group is composed of 33 participants representing residents, business owners, developers, water managers, property managers, and realtors as well as nonprofits, conservation groups, state agencies, and regional agencies.

Focus group meetings allowed stakeholders to give input at each phase of the planning process. The Task Force will compile this information to build a draft drought management plan, implement specific conservation tasks and projects, and help our community battle drought and water supply issues today and into the future.