Gallatin River Task Force hosts first symposium

Headwaters Alliance meeting on Dec. 9 sees large turnout

Local stakeholders, river recreationalists, and community members gathered for the Gallatin River Task Force’s (GRTF) first ever Big Sky Headwaters Alliance Symposium last week on Thursday, Dec. 9, at the Wilson Hotel, to listen to the conservation projects going on the river and figure out what they might do to support the widely used Gallatin waterway. Kristin Gardner, the executive director for GRTF, opened up the evening with updates on projects and her take on the river’s condition in 2021. As a scientist, Gardner’s never been more worried about the Gallatin River with the algae blooms and the drought this year. About 75 people showed up for the two-hour event.

Sky in 2004. Around 2012, the Blue Water Task Force rebranded to the Gallatin River Task Force (GRTF) and developed a series of new visions for the Gallatin River focused on drought resiliency and water quantity.

According to the GRTF website, “The Big Sky Headwaters Alliance consists of a group of partners coordinating to sustainably manage water resources in Big Sky.”

What is the Headwaters Alliance?

Over the last decade, the GRTF has focused on restoration projects, education for youth and community members, threats to the Upper Gallatin watershed like algae blooms and wastewater disposal, and managed multiple partnerships focused on river health with the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the Big Sky community, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MT DEQ).

Following Garder’s introduction to the Headwaters Alliance Symposium, specialists from USFS and MT DEQ presented about the ecological health of the river and then two folks from the Montana Bureau of Mines discussed groundwater supply studies.

Emily O’Connor, the conservation director for GRTF, spoke about the fundamental dependency of Big Sky on water. She emphasized the community relies 100% on groundwater for drinking and urged folks to start realizing water is finite. “We cannot make more water,” O’Connor said at one point. Moving forward, GRTF wants to focus on how to use the limited amount of water in the area well.

Ryan Newcomb, the managing director for GRTF, talked about opportunities to get involved and what’s next for the twenty-year-old nonprofit. Newcomb believes the Big Sky community will be on board with GRTF when they understand the scope of the “all-hands-on-deck” situation. He also suggested folks looking to get involved should attend community meetings, join a headwaters alliance committee, or volunteer at the farmers market or on restoration projects. The GRTF estimated it will need $60-70 million over the next decade to keep up with recreation impacts, climate change, and infrastructure pressure in stewardship for the overall health of the Gallatin River. Over the last three years, the GRTF spent $1.5 million on conservation projects.

Pat Flowers, a member of the Montana state senate for District 32, also attended GRTF’s first Headwaters Alliance Symposium on Thursday night. “It [water], to me, is one of the most critical issues for Big Sky, as well as Bozeman. And I represent part of Bozeman and I represent Gallatin Gateway. It’s the lifeblood that runs through all of these communities. Our economy is dependent on it. Our public health is dependent on it. And our wellbeing overall is dependent on it. Any issue, any meeting like this, where they are going to discuss the future of that river and how it is going to be managed and how we are going to address challenges is at the top of my list,” said Flowers.

Earlier this year in June, U.S. senator John Tester reproposed legislation to designate 385 miles of Montana waterways— including the nearby Gallatin, Madison, and Smith Rivers—as Wild and Scenic through a bill called the “Montana Headwaters Legacy Act”. If approved, the legislation would protect primary sources of drinking water in the Gallatin River and Taylor’s Fork. Congress read the bill earlier this year and referred it to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. 


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