Montana Department of Environmental Quality grants final permit for Big Sky recycled snowmaking proposal

Gallatin River Task Force pilot study from 2011 comes to fruition

After a decade of study and review, the Big Sky community’s effort to use highly treated recycled water for snowmaking to sustain late season water flow and river health has received final approval. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on Monday issued a final permit granting approval for a proposal from the Yellowstone Club to use recycled water for base level snowmaking, with 80% of the recycled water coming from the broader Big Sky community, and 20% from the Yellowstone Club.

The Yellowstone Club applied for the permit in March of 2020, and DEQ issued an initial draft permit notice on March 19, 2021, which was followed by a public comment period. Several environmental and community groups wrote letters of support for the permit to DEQ, including Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Gallatin River Task Force (GRTF), the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators, Big Sky Resort, and the Big Sky County Water and Sewer Department.

Water storage and late season water flow have long been problems in the Gallatin Valley watershed. Snow makes up the majority of the source water within the watershed and the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment predicted even less snowfall as the century progresses, further increasing the late season waterflow problem. Low late season water flow leads to decreases in water quality due to the lack of dilution of harmful pollutants like nitrogen, which is a leading driver of algae blooms. Low late season flow also negatively affects down-stream agriculture and recreational water users. By increasing snowpack with reclaimed water, the valley will see increased in-stream flows later in the season. Studies on the Yellowstone Club proposal show this method could equate to a 25-million gallon net benefit to the aquifer and watershed.

“The Task Force is grateful for the leadership demonstrated by the Yellowstone Club in paving a pathway for recycled wastewater reuse that will be a tremendous benefit for the Gallatin,” said GRTF Executive Director Dr. Kristin Gardner. “Our hope is to see this reuse option greatly expanded in Big Sky, as well as to other river basins in Montana, to build drought resilience and bolster late season streamflows.”

Patrick Byorth, Montana Water Director for Trout Unlimited, echoed his praise for the project, saying: “This is a great example of a tangible result of our community collaboration. Yellowstone Club’s efforts will build snowpack, store water later into the summer, and keep water quality and fisheries healthy at the headwaters of the Gallatin. We hope their investment will encourage others to be equally innovative.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added snowmaking as a viable reclaimed water reuse option in its 2012 Guidelines for Water Reuse. There are currently at least 12 ski resorts in eight states that use recycled water for snowmaking, as well as operations in Canada, Switzerland, and Australia.

“We are grateful for the many community partners who have helped make this decade-long collaboration a reality,” said Rich Chandler, environmental manager for the Yellowstone Club. “Fortunately, we have the opportunity to do a great project that will help conserve our limited water supply and protect the watershed. Hopefully there are more projects coming online like this in the future.”

Timeline of recycled snowmaking collaboration:

In 2011, GRTF conducted a pilot study and identified the concept of using recycled water in Big Sky for snowmaking.

In 2012, DEQ created additional reuse standards for reclaimed water disposal within the Circular 2 standards, including snowmaking as one option.

In 2017, GRTF formed the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum that included 35 community stakeholders. The Forum determined that snowmaking with reclaimed water was a reuse priority for the Big Sky community to extend seasonable snowpack, further treat the water through several natural processes and slow water movement through the watershed to downstream users.

Currently, recycled water is used at Big Sky Resort’s golf course, Spanish Peak’s golf course, Yellowstone Club’s golf course, and Moonlight Basin’s golf course, as well as other courses across Montana and the mountain west. Land application of recycled water provides soil infiltration and nutrients for native plant and microbe uptake. The process of snow making produces even cleaner water than what is applied to golf courses. A study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated a 100 percent reduction in all bacteria populations that impact human health in fresh artificial snow made from reclaimed water.

Currently, nearly all ski area snowmaking systems require a pond to transfer water, of which those ponds are unregulated for bacteria. DEQ is the regulatory agency that has oversight of all reclaimed water use in Montana, and its regulations require snowmaking with reclaimed water to utilize the highest standards recognized for public and environmental health. The process of snowmaking with recycled water as a state regulated process will carry much higher standards than typical practices.

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