A first step for the Gallatin Canyon

Addressing water quality and environmental issues 

An unprecedented gathering of around 50 canyon residents and business owners and other interested parties met at Buck’s T-4 on Jan. 23 for the “Canyon Water Resources Meeting,” a gathering regarded as the first official meeting of its kind.

The impetus? Water quality and environmental impact concerns have been boiling for some time as the area is not in the Big Sky County Water & Sewer District and has no common infrastructure. 

There was discussion of the canyon eventually creating its own water and sewer district – a suggestion made by Ron Edwards, general manager for Big Sky County Water & Sewer District. A survey to gauge support from the community is likely and will be spearheaded by the Gallatin River Taskforce. Another meeting is planned for March. 

“This is absolutely the beginning,” meeting facilitator Karen Fillipovich said. 

Buck’s T-4 co-owner and Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Dave O’Connor agreed, saying it is the beginning of what will be a very long process. 

There’s a problem 

The consensus from the experts was overwhelming: the canyon is in trouble. The solution needs to be well thought-out but expedited. BSW&SD board member Peter Manka referred to the canyon as “the gorilla in the room” the previous day at the BSW&SD board meeting.

“Regardless of what we do here, it’s a lot worse down there,” he said. In that same meeting, Scott Buecker, senior project manager with Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, said that even if efforts begin immediately – best-case scenario – the canyon will have a centralized system in the next five to 10 years. 

Environmental impacts and water scarcity 

GRTF Director Kristin Gardner said that five area steams which feed the Gallatin River are not currently meeting water quality standards: the West fork, South Fork, Middle Fork, Taylor Fork and Cache Creek, though the water chemistry of the main stem Gallatin River “looks really good,” except for erosion.

The GRTF is still sorting through data regarding the 2018 unprecedented algae bloom on the Gallatin. Nutrient loading of phosphorus and nitrogen – elements found in wastewater – as well as other drivers contribute: temperature, sunlight, a big water year, ice. 

“It’s a really complicated process,” Gardner said, but asserted that nutrient loading has “a dramatic effect.” 

Tammy Swinney, district manager with the Gallatin Local Water Quality District, described the unique characteristics of the Big Sky and canyon area. 

“There’s nobody above you guys… [the area is the] headwaters of the Gallatin watershed with a complex geological setting and a lot of wells in close proximity to the river,” Swinney said, also noting the south part of the canyon is hugging the Yellowstone Controlled Groundwater Area which is protected. “Water quality and availability in the canyon area can be challenging.”

This presents its own challenges to well water: shallow wells are easily contaminated and can dry out during drought; deep wells can be low-producing and costly. Property owners in the canyon are responsible for monitoring water quality on their own since there is no centralized system. Swinney recommends canyon homeowners test their wells for nitrate and bacteria as well as consider arsenic screening.

Lori Christenson with the Gallatin City-County Environmental Health Department pointed out that if property owners do not have properly functioning wastewater treatment systems, owners run the risk of “contaminating your own well or your neighbor’s well.”  

New zoning regulations surfacing soon 

The Gallatin Planning Department is projected to have updated Gallatin Canyon Big Sky Zoning Regulations by next fall/winter. 

Mathieu Menard, assistant planner for the planning department said there are approximately 1,660 acres that are undeveloped in the canyon and 805 potential dwelling units with current zoning there. Assistant Planning Director Mayana Rice said that of the 1,000 or so zoning permit requests from 2005-18, about 800 were approved. 

One possible piece of the puzzle

Buzz Davis, Mike Scholz, and Steve Johnson from the Resort Tax Board were all present and involved in the discussion. 

Johnson said one potential option that would mitigate cost for the canyon would be building a sewer trunk and a lift station to pump the effluent to the expanded treatment plant. The gravel pits off of U.S. Highway 191 would be a possible location. 

O’Connor wondered – What would happen to old septic systems if property owners do hook up to a centralized system? They would just be collapsed and filled in with dirt, Edwards responded, “But, the newer the septic, the higher the investment and that makes people less likely to vote for a bond for funding for the centralized system.”  

A map to success? 

Ashley Kroon, environmental engineer with Montana Department of Environmental Quality, offered a scenario that took place in Gallatin Gateway, described at the meeting as a potential “map” for Big Sky.

For a time, no new septic systems were allowed in Gallatin Gateway because they couldn’t meet state requirements. The community had a drinking water issue which included elevated nitrate levels in the public water in the school and other areas in Gallatin Gateway.

Gateway began looking at options in 2006. A Preliminary Engineering Report established a centralized wastewater collection system which would be pumped to Four Corners was the best option.

When the Four Corners wastewater treatment facility went public, Gallatin Gateway and Four Corners entered into an interlocal agreement. Kroon said it was a huge process. “But I would argue the end result has been really good for Gateway: the environmental quality from being near the Gallatin River as well as drinking water has improved,” she said. 

To make it happen a bond election took place in which everyone in the district could vote.  There was a stipulation: if you were in the district, you had to connect to the system. The bulk of funding was from grants. 

The $863,000 sewer-system bond, which supplemented the more than $4 million system, was overwhelmingly approved in 2012. “It was an amazing project. What they have is exactly what you guys are talking about,” said Kroon. 

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