Big Sky County Water and Sewer District 363 General Manager Ron Edwards discusses all the moving parts to managing Big Sky’s water and waste. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Community Building Forum series

Big Sky County Water and Sewer District on the WRRF facility expansion, 1% for infrastructure and the Canyon Project

Big Sky County Water and Sewer District 363 (BSCWSD) saw the writing on the wall a few years ago. Actually, they more accurately saw an increase in flushed toilets. Discussion of a Water Resource Recovery Facility upgrade began. With all the background work done and a large portion of funding made possible by a voter approved 1% increase in Resort Tax and an interlocal agreement with Big Sky Resort Area District (Resort Tax), that expansion – which will double plant capacity – is set to be completed by the summer of 2022, Ron Edwards explained during the Chamber of Commerce Building Forum. The plant expansion will include an upgrade in treatment technology, which will open up additional treated water disposal options, like groundwater recharge, snowmaking and surface water discharge.

Bidding and constructing a large municipal project in the midst of a pandemic is not ideal, but the district simply has no choice. Growth is spurring necessity.

“We have our hands full with a $43 million plant upgrade,” BSCWSD board president Tom Reeves said during the November board meeting as he discussed the necessity of prioritizing projects.

The cost estimate for the upgrade had been approximately $35 million.

AE2S Project Manager Scott Buecker explained that there is a $5 million bump in the concrete line item, which shows the worst case scenario. He said that concrete in southwestern Montana is two and a half times more expensive than what it costs in Minneapolis. The pandemic brought other headaches.

“It’s not a great time to bid a project. There’s a lot of uncertainty with labor and supply issues,” he said, both of which drive up production costs.

A keen look at the project reveals there are not any big options architecturally or treatment-wise to cut the costs of the project, he explained.

A big chunk of the funding for the project – 60% or $27 million – is available thanks to a voter approved 1% increase in Resort Tax that will sunset or cease after the funding is accrued or in June of 2032. An interlocal agreement was drafted between BSCWSD and Resort Tax with stipulations for a $12 million Canyon Project and 500 SFEs reserved for deed restricted workforce housing.

“The interlocal agreement with RT was significant. It is uncommon to build a [large] treatment plant in a town of 3,000 people,” Edwards said, noting the funding was a “game changer”.

The paperwork has been submitted to create a Canyon water and sewer district that will include the Conoco, the Quarry development, Buck’s T-4 and the 40 acres behind Buck’s T-4. Community leaders and the Gallatin River Task Force have long been eyeing the canyon, seeing it as the next major place for growth in the area and also as the biggest likely polluter to the Gallatin River, thanks to subpar treatment levels of many individual septic systems. A higher standard of treatment is viewed as an investment in protecting the river and in the community. The BSCWSD commitment to working on the Canyon Project will include a lift station and force main to bring wastewater from the canyon area to the Big Sky WRRF and also a treated water return pipeline to reuse or dispose of highly treated water in the canyon.

Edwards said many area organizations rallied behind the effort, including the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, Resort Tax and the Gallatin River Task Force. The community showed its support as well, with nearly 70% voter approval of the 1% resort tax increase for the project.

The upgrade will greatly decrease nitrogen and phosphorus in the treated effluent, which will further protect the river.

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