Does Big Sky have surplus water?

Water and sewer board turns attention to supply
“He used to water the rocks. Now he just has rocks.” —Big Sky Water and Sewer District Board Member Brian Wheeler describing how one of his neighbors made the water-wise switch to xeriscaping.

Recent debate over the future of water in Big Sky has focused largely on disposal—including the controversial option of discharging treated water into the Gallatin River. But during the Feb. 20 monthly board meeting of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, Board President Packy Cronin raised the issue of water supply and whether or not the district should reconsider how it measures and sells “surplus” water.

“We need to start looking at how to define surplus water. What is surplus water? I think we should do a little review of what surplus water really means so we know what we’re doing here,” said Cronin. “Think Cape Town, South Africa. You get one bucket for the day. We better get that balance right.”

The district currently sells water to the Yellowstone Club as part of a 2001 agreement. It also sells to construction trucks, which fill up at a fire hydrant on Little Coyote Road. But now, given all the current scrutiny of local supply and options for disposing of effluent, Cronin wondered if the district might reconsider when and how it sells surplus water.

Later, in a phone interview, Cronin emphasized that when it comes to the Yellowstone Club, “I’m not trying to turn their water off. I’m trying to put a fire under everyone.” 

Seated next to Cronin during the recent board meeting was fellow Board Member Mike DuCuennois, the Yellowstone Club’s vice president of development. When asked for his take on the discussion about the sale of surplus water, DuCuennois said, “Just read the agreement. That’s my response.” 

Back in 2001, District General Manager Ron Edwards called the agreement “an important event in the history of Big Sky,” in part because it allowed the district to dispose of millions of gallons of effluent through irrigation. 

But the agreement does not require the district to sell surplus water to the Yellowstone Club, said Cronin.

“It says we sell them water as long as we have surplus water,” continued Cronin, explaining that he thinks now is a good time to start hard conversations about water conservation and increasing the district’s supply of fresh water any way it can, including the rehabbing of old wells. 

“We need to look at all of the above. Because hey, this is a finite resource and we’re going to run out some day,” said Cronin, noting recent studies and discussion about local water supply. “If we do nothing, from now until 2025, we’ll hit that wall where production is not keeping up with demand. That’s coming quicker than we think.”

The board did not take any action on the concerns raised about assessing water surpluses, but it did discuss how the supply side of the district’s work has been overshadowed by all the debate over effluent disposal. 

“It’s been disposal, disposal,” said Board Member Brian Wheeler. “And this (water supply) has been sitting off to the side.”

“The Mountain Village is very close to being short of water,” added Jim Muscat, the district’s water superintendent. “A lot has changed in 15 years. There’s a lot of demand. What we had yesterday doesn’t mean what we’ll have tomorrow. We would be remiss if we didn’t look at the big picture. But the precedent of selling water, there are steps that have to be taken. We need to stay ahead of the game.”

There is a steady supply of water at the Mountain Village, said Edwards, but some has elevated sulfur content so that limits overall production.  

The board also discussed the need to encourage water conservation by steering homeowners, developers and landscapers away from what Wheeler described as “$60,000-$70,000 landscaping packages on a third acre lot” that require a gusher of irrigation water to maintain. 

“Landscapers are proposing these packages and people are saying ‘yes,’” continued Wheeler. “They are eating some water. We need to encourage xeriscaping.”

Wheeler then mentioned that a neighbor made the switch to low-water-use xeriscaping.

“He used to water the rocks. Now he just has rocks,” said Wheeler.

Muscat commented, “We got to make it hurt if you’re going to be a water waster.”

Wheeler chimed back in, adding, “A lot of it is education. We used to encourage a lot of grass. We should discourage it.”

Edwards then suggested it might be a good idea to show the community what a water-smart yard looks like.

“It may be useful to do a demonstration project and incentivize it,” said Edwards. 

At the February board meeting, there also was discussion about a development proposed by landowner Bill Fallon, who would like to connect lots in Aspen Groves to the water and sewer district. 

And the board received media training from Maria Effertz Hanson, with AE2S Communications. The training was designed to prepare district staff and board members for increased media scrutiny as the debate over how to handle future effluent discharge continues. 

“We’re cooperating. We’re sharing,” said Effertz Hanson. “Everything we’re doing is public information.” 


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