Montana Water Project with Trout Unlimited Director Patrick Byorth speaks to the board encouraging members to invest in the technology to protect the river. Susan Swimley, legal counsel for the Big Sky County Water & Sewer District, prepared the district’s board of directors for backlash and threats of legal action from environmental groups concerned about the direction the board will take on the new water treatment plant and wastewater disposal options.

Protect the Gallatin – or else

Environmental groups threaten Big Sky County Water & Sewer District

The Big Sky County Water & Sewer District January board meeting was a little more contentious than usual. One reason was a threat of legal action from environmentalists. 

“Ask questions. Think about the questions you’re asking. You’ve already been threatened. Happy New Year,” legal counsel for the board Susan Swimley said, preparing board members for comments from Guy Alsentzer with Missouri River Water Keepers; Scott Bosse director of Northern Rockies of American Rivers; and Patrick Byorth director of Montana Water Project with Trout Unlimited. 

The three organizations joined to draft a letter to the water and sewer board with a request: make the waste water treatment plant upgrade the best it can be – or else. They assured the board that they would be held accountable for any damage to the watershed. 

“Our river is nearing a tipping point ecologically,” Alsentzer said, noting that the district is on the verge of putting forth “serious financial resources to upgrade” and encouraged the board to “avoid the pipe in the river,” gather data and procure preliminary cost estimates. 

“You’re going to be the leaders or you’re going to be the scapegoat,” Byorth warned when addressing the board, also noting “chronic loading,” and that the fish in the Gallatin are the canaries, referencing the severe algae bloom in the Gallatin River in 2018. He encouraged the board to “invest in the technology.”

Bosse explained that the goal is to see highly treated wastewater reused a number of ways. “We do want to see Big Sky close the loop on water use, and [rather] be a model mountain community. As we grow, we don’t want it to be at the expense of the natural resources that we have,” he said. 

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Candace Carr Strauss and local attorney Mindy Cummings inquired: Where was the local environmental organization –the Gallatin River Taskforce – in all of this? The GRTF did not participate in the drafting of the threatening letter, nor was the letter signed by a member of the organization. 

Kristin Gardner, executive director of the GRTF addressed the board after Cummings, iterating that her organization seeks to maintain the good working relationship long established with the board. 

“As a board we are very unified in promoting advanced treatment in the watershed,” Gardner said, expressing that snowmaking, groundwater discharge and expanding purple pipe – the term coined for recycled water – would be good steps. She also invited all present to a meeting at Buck’s T-4 the following day in which Gallatin Canyon residents were to discuss water and sewer options. 

Scott Buecker, senior project manager with Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, the company the board is working with on the ongoing treatment plant upgrade, spoke to the board later in the meeting. He said he had to sift through the letter from the environmental groups, reading and rereading it very slowly to find what he thought were their greatest concerns. 

Buecker referred to the environmental groups’ concerns with the technology “pretty nebulous,” his takeaway being, “go find something more innovative or more cutting edge… or whatever it might be.”  

Buecker issued packets to both the board and the environmental groups addressing what he deciphered to be their issues. He said he’s been a fan of sewers in the canyon ever since he figured out what was going on in Big Sky, and told the board that sewers in the canyon are – at best – five to 10 years down the road.

“You don’t have that kind of time with the existing plant: we’ve shown that in terms of flows and loads and nutrients that are coming out of there now– we just don’t have that kind of time,” Buecker said. 

Water and sewer board member Peter Manka took notes, stating that the board has every intention to upgrade the water treatment facility to the best it can be. Toward the end of the meeting Manka asked Alsentzer if he was correct in finding three main issues the groups had with the proposed expansion: size and scope – whether the canyon is somehow incorporated; the technology and the disposal. Alsentzer agreed. 

After lengthy discussion it was established that the environmental groups take minimal issues with Phase One of the project (building an upgraded treatment plant); the bulk of their issue with a proposal is Phase Two: the option of using river discharge as a way to mitigate. This option has been long-available, as Big Sky County Water & Sewer District General Manager Ron Edwards stated, but it’s something that has never been used. 

Another request was that the treatment plant accommodate nearly double the effluent currently proposed. Board member Tom Reeves said that they function as elected members and have to take affordability for constituents into account. Alsentzer produced an interesting funding idea: Big Sky is unique and has plenty of money flowing through the Yellowstone Club. He discussed how he could very easily meet Big Sky celebrity resident Justin Timberlake at the bar and maybe he would fund it.  

Throughout the meeting, the environmental groups criticized the technology selection – how the water and sewer district should be seeking more advanced technology, but never specified other, more desirable options. 

Buecker addressed the general argument. 

“We’ve received a lot of criticism about the technology selection,” he said, and went on to explain why he believed MBR or membrane bioreactor – a combination of membrane filtration with biological treatment – is the best choice for what Big Sky is up against. 

“It’s not just innovative; it’s proven. That’s tough to get. Treatment-wise, within the next three to four years, we need that facility down there,” said Buecker. With $21.7 million in steel, concrete and membrane already being constructed, it is important to know how much that site can handle in terms of treatment–so they can know if it is even a candidate to accommodate waste water from the canyon if it is sewered someday,” Buecker said, agreeing on that point with the environmental groups. 

“We need to separate phase one: upgrade and expansion from some of the bigger picture, very difficult, challenging, and collaborative processes that will take years and years and years,” Buecker continued, mainly speaking to the situation with the canyon which Manka called the “gorilla in the room.” 

MBR is set to remove 75 percent more nitrogen from water and 90-95 percent more phosphorus than the current plant. 

“And that’s a hell of a start,” said Buecker, also noting that all reuse alternatives being considered start with MBR, which is the base wastewater treatment option that California has adopted. 

Alsentzer voiced agreement: MBR is innovative and proven and a good starting point. 

Edwards then spoke: “MBR is the path we’re on and I think it’s a good one. We don’t have a lot of time to sit around and revisit what kind of plant we’re going to build. Phase One does not involve a discharge permit,” explaining that Phase Two looks at stream discharge as a way to mitigate and plug but is another discussion for another time. 

Noting the long history of the water and sewer district going above and beyond to protect waterways, Edwards opined that it might be time to get working on Phase One – several board members agreed. Edwards also spoke of the goal to treat all water to a higher level, regardless of where it’s going, and to raise the bar on treatment to open up snowmaking opportunities. 

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