The irrigation race begins
W&S district says there’s no room for error between now and October
“In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money. And it literally does.”
Author Marc Reisner wasn’t talking about Big Sky when he made this observation in his classic 1986 book “Cadillac Desert,” but this community’s current water challenges prove his point.
Right now, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District treats 450,000-500,000 gallons per day, while at the same time it disposes of more than a million gallons of treated reclaimed wastewater every 24 hours. Much of it is pumped uphill through eight-inch pipe to the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, where it’s stored in two ponds and used to irrigate the golf course.
Around 400,000 gallons of treated reclaimed water is applied to the turf at Spanish Peaks every day. It’s a practice, that so far, has helped Big Sky avoid directly discharging excess treated water into the West Fork or main flow of the Gallatin River.
Concerns about Big Sky running out of fairways to water with its treated discharge surrounded the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum discussions late last year, so a thoughtful set of recommendations were put forward. In a blog post from Dec. 10, 2017, American Rivers’ Scott Bosse described how, “Notably missing from the recommendations was direct discharge of treated wastewater into the river.”
Still, with plans to expand Big Sky’s water treatment plant scheduled to roll out in August, there remains talk about permitting for discharge into the West Fork and Main Gallatin.
“It’s a hot button topic. Always has been,” explained Big Sky Water and Sewer General Manager Ron Edwards, who has a lot going on these days.
At the monthly W&S district board meeting on July 17, Edwards seemed to be hitting his stopwatch and yelling “Go!” when he described the day-to-day challenges facing him and his team.
“So, we have to get rid of 172 million gallons and we have to do it in 76 days,” said Edwards on July 17, describing the non-stop “irrigation season” ahead. “We’ve got a lot of days and we’ve got to keep this up.”
“That’s aggressive,” remarked W&S Board Member Brian Wheeler. “But we have to hit that between now and October.”
Edwards nodded, saying, “We just can’t have any hiccups.”
W&S Board Chair Packy Cronin has described the district’s overall approach as, “Pushing all this water uphill.” It’s a system, said Cronin, that’s saddled with an over-dependence on one key tactic—irrigating golf courses.
If a pump breaks or the pipeline running from Meadow Village to Spanish Peaks and the Yellowstone Club is compromised, Big Sky will be stuck scrambling for ways to dispose of its wastewater.
“We’re right up against it, making sure we don’t overflow,” said Cronin. By “overflow,” Cronin means watching storage ponds like those in Meadow Village spill their banks.
“We have this system, that 100 percent relies on storing water until we can dispose of it through irrigation,” continued Cronin. “If one piece of the puzzle fails, and we end up with more water than our system can contain, it’s going over the banks into the river. This is as close as we’ve ever been to be at capacity. Ever.”
Cronin wants to see a plan come together where there’s “never an accidental discharge.” He looks forward to the first details rolling out about how the district proposes to upgrade the treatment plant, increase capacity and protect the Gallatin River.
AE2S Engineering plans to present to the W&S board its “Preliminary Engineering Report and Effluent Disposal Study” sometime around the end of August and beginning of September.
Maria Effertz Hanson, spokesperson for AE2S, said the firm is designing facilities around build out of the currently identified 10,678 single family equivalents (SFEs), which have been identified in the district’s service area.
“For reference,” said Effertz Hanson, “at the end of 2017 the district was serving 5,655 SFEs.”
Effertz Hanson went on to note, “Finalization of the effluent disposal report will depend slightly on the timing of a second effluent disposal workshop with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.”
Cronin doesn’t know all the details of what AE2S will propose, but he’s certain, “It’s going to include a discharge permit to the river, within all the rules and regulations, but be able to put it in the river in a technologically affordable manner.”
Edwards envisions the plan granting his district more options and less of a tight-rope reliance on the water and sewer system’s current assemblage of pumps, pipes and ponds.
“Pumps can fail. Motors can fail. Pipelines can fail,” said Edwards in a follow up interview after the recent board meeting. “We’ve already seen land movement issues in and around Spanish Peaks. If a landslide takes that out, we’re done. We’ve got no place to go.”
Delivery time on a new pump is 45 weeks, noted Edwards, who has a pair of $40,000 backup pumps on order.
The W&S district’s expensive motorized pumps are what keep treated water moving uphill toward local golf course irrigation systems. Together, the pumps and pipes create a closed-loop system, like a giant astronaut suit built for irrigating. It protects the overall Gallatin watershed using pricey technology and lots of power.
“Everybody likes to talk about carbon footprint. But nobody talks about ours because it is insane the amount of power we use pushing all this water around,” said Edwards, describing what it takes to keep Big Sky’s treated water in Big Sky until its evaporated, irrigated or put back into the ground through an engineered drain field—a tactic the W&S district is actively developing (see “Build it and a drain field will come?” on page 12).
“The underlying story is that it’s difficult and complicated,” said Edwards. “We crossed that line 25 years ago.”
A building moratorium starting in 1993 halted development in Big Sky until a new wastewater system and upgrade to the golf course irrigation lines allowed building to continue in 1996.
Many remain glad to see a headwaters community like Big Sky go the extra several miles uphill to make sure its wastewater is discharged in ways other than a pipe to the river. For 10 years, said Edwards, the district held a discharge permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. But its holding ponds and irrigation pipeline managed to handle the growing load of wastewater and the district never opted to discharge into the Gallatin.
In 2005, concerns about increased development and sewer flow in Big Sky caused Rep. Chris Harris, D-Bozeman to sound the alarm about new construction potentially harming the clear waters of the Gallatin River.
Harris called on the state to deny necessary permits until an environmental impact statement could be completed. The plan was opposed by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and never gained the necessary political and financial support it needed.
Looking ahead, it’s possible Big Sky voters could enact a de facto moratorium at the polls. After the water and sewer district rolls out its plan for expanding capacity and updating its treatment equipment—more details are expected in August—the proposed capital improvements will have to be approved by voters in a bond election.
“Voters can say no,” said Edwards. “Everybody acts like money is no object around here. Yeah, it is.”
But before Edwards and the district tackle the financials behind planned upgrades, he’s focused on keeping the wastewater he has moving through the treatment plant, into the pipelines and eventually, out onto local fairways and greens.
The current dry weather is a blessing, said Edwards, explaining how irrigation disposal could be halted by wet weather.
Edwards said, “If we get a bunch of rain in September, we won’t make it.”