Community leaders and citizens gathered in the Big Sky Chamber conference room to discuss water issues and options for the canyon. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Canyon debates the water issue

Unregulated septic systems and concerns for water and river quality spur community

Nearly 20 people gathered in the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Conference Room on Wed. June 19 to discuss water treatment options for Gallatin Canyon residents, including options like a septic maintenance program or the potential for forming a district and constructing a centralized treatment system.


Due to the length and complexity of the issue, Lone Peak Lookout will continue this topic in next week’s edition.


Big Sky Resort Tax District allocated money to fund the Gallatin Canyon Engineering Study Report. Experts with the Gallatin River Task Force, project manager of the study, Mace Mangold with WGM Group and Beth Norberg of Lewisouis and Clark County Health Department,  – home of that has the only septic maintenance program in the state, spoke on the issue.  Participating organizations view the study as the first step toward understanding the roughly 1,000 septic systems in the canyon. The group also seesviews the study as a necessary piece of the puzzle to figuring -out future action.


It was emphasized by facilitator Karen Filipovich that no decisions are to be made anytime soon and this was one of many preliminary meetings that will be held in the quest to ensuring a clean river and clean drinking water for area residents.


“There is no authority to tell you [that] you need to sample your water quality once or twice a year or ever. There are people who have lived here 30 years who have never tested their water,” Lori Christensen with the Gallatin County City-County Health Department said.


Gallatin City-County Health Department had a slide prominently on display asking, “Why does the health department care about a septic maintenance program or district formation?” The outlined answers included public health and water quality protection. The department is interested in creating a level playing field in which everyone has to have a safely operating septic system according to Christensen..


“Without protecting everything you have listed, you can’t protect the property value,” BSRAD Big Sky Resort Tax director Mike Scholz said. “If you have failure of your water, whether it be the river or your well, it’s going to affect your property value.”


Roadmaps to getting there are varied.


Potential for a septic maintenance program:

“We’re just really trying to focus on where the septic system is and is it being maintained. That is something the City of Helena is focusing on,” Norberg with the Lewisouis and County Health Department said. The department is currently working-out the kinks in their septic maintenance program, but enforceability remains an issue.


“It is not going great for us in terms of enforcement. It’s a bit overwhelming for an entire county. In a district it might be different,” she said.


BSRADResort Tax vice chair Steve Johnson noted that they Lewis and Clark County hasave only one enforcement officer in the entire county. Christensen from the Gallatin City-County Health Department said it is likely some septic systems in the canyon are so old they are unregistered while others have been put-in under-the-radar.


“In terms of what we are trying to solve, I alluded to the fact that there are systems we don’t know anything about. I think there is benefit for public health and public water quality protection to know the quality of the water septic systems out there,” she said.


Potential of forming a water and sewer district in the canyon:

Another option is the formation of a water and sewer district in the canyon.


Canyon resident Lori Wetzel who lives in Ram’s Horn development said in later conversation that she had heard other people living in her development voice concern they would be forced into a district when the development already has its own confined community water treatment system. Each home in the development has its own septic tank with a community wastewater treatment plant, she said.

“Part of our dues is septic pumping. So, they check the tanks every year and whoever needs to be pumped – it’s in our dues. There’s no cost to us now. We only pay $340 a quarter. I’m interested in cost. The value to us, what would it be?” Lori Wetzel said.


The meeting facilitator Filipovich  emphasized that the decision of forming a district in the canyon will not fall on anyone outside of the canyon. Further, any area that is predicted to have an uptick in development,  – the section of 191 just south of Big Sky, for example, could form a district, but only the people within those established district boundaries could vote for or against the formation of a district. She described it as democracy in action – nothing happens without voter approval.

She went on to explain that when Four Corners formed their district, they worked around property owners who did not want to be a part of the district. Many of those property owners are now electing to be annexed into the district, Filipovich said. – with Iincreased property values from centralized water treatment are serving as a major impetus.


Big Sky County Water and Sewer District general manager Ron Edwards spoke in favor of the formation of a district pointing-out that he views it as proactive and “cleaner to have it done as a voter created district.”


“It’s the right entity to have in place to do a lot of different things,” he said, explaining the district would be able to do more with septic systems and attain bonds for funding.

He spoke to the building moratorium passed down from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MTDEQ) for Big Sky years ago, explaining thatand that instead of the scrambling they were forced to do, an established water and sewer district likely would have “shaved two years off the moratorium.”


Scholzz , BSRAD director, said if water quality begins spiraling, the cost to remedy it will grow exponentially.


“A perfectly working septic system that is maintained – the treatment levels you get out of it aren’t that great. It’s better that they are being maintained, but the treatment levels these afford you aren’t that great,” Edwards said it was important to note.


Scholz followed that thought by pointing-out that it’s not that “everything is pristine right now.”

“There are samples of the river that are saying it’s getting worse,” he said.


Potential for a multi-dimensional approach:

BSRAD vice chair Johnson  stated that doing one approach without the other is not a good plan.

“As we have discussed, even if you want to pursue a septic maintenance program, a district is an important element of really creating the enforceability that you’d like to really give that some honest to God teeth,” he said.


David O’Connor, co-owner of Buck’s T-4 agreed that a multi-dimensional approach is likely the best option.


“What is the solid foundation for success? Creating that decision-making board would set you up for success,” Guy Alsentzer, executive director and founder of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper said.


“It could be a septic maintenance program and that’s it or 20 years later it could be a water and sewer plant,” O’Connor added to Alsentzer’s statement.


The formation of a voter district would give immediate authority to a voter selected board of directors.


“You have a lot of authority as a water and sewer district because at the state level it is recognized that water and sewer is pretty damn important,” Johnson said.

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