The ski town of Big Sky, Montana, is a modern-day Western boomtown. From little more than a post office in 1973, it has become one of the world’s most exclusive ski resorts. And not surprisingly, it has encountered some growing pains.
The biggest problem is water. Rapid growth in Big Sky threatens to deplete groundwater, the only source of drinking water for the community. A close second is wastewater treatment. The sewage system was expanded just 15 years ago at a cost of $15 million, but it’s already nearly at capacity. Another expansion will be needed soon.
The town also needs another outlet for its treated wastewater. Golf course irrigation has been able to absorb the whole load until now. But limits are approaching there, as well. The simple solution is to do what virtually every other community does: Discharge the treated wastewater into the nearest stream – in this case, the Gallatin River, which flows through town – and let gravity carry it away.
But Big Sky, which lies 50 miles from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, is planning a different path. The idea of using the Gallatin River for sewage disposal is almost universally reviled by area residents. So a group of three dozen community leaders has been meeting for months as the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions Forum to search for another fix – and surprisingly they may have found a solution to all three problems that will involve using sewage-treated water for snowmaking.
Valuing the River
Outsiders know the Gallatin from the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It,” starring Brad Pitt. Ostensibly set on the Blackfoot River, most of the heart-stirring scenery was actually shot on the Gallatin River, and the exposure was one of the factors that led to Big Sky’s rapid growth.
“I actually think there are more people deeply in love with the Gallatin River than they are with the mountain the ski areas are built on,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for the environmental group American Rivers and a member of the forum. “Most people from outside Big Sky don’t understand that.”
Protecting the Gallatin River, the water solutions forum concludes in a new report, is the most important objective and must guide all other decisions about Big Sky’s water needs.
“The intent here is to create a model for other communities,” said Rich Chandler, environment manager at the Yellowstone Club, a private ski and golf resort in Big Sky that CNN recently named one of the world’s most exclusive ski resorts.
Big Sky has grown not just rapidly, but lavishly. It has a full-time population of only about 2,300 people, but many more part-time residents who own luxurious second homes in the area. It’s become a haven for celebrities and financiers who enjoy the seclusion of gated resorts like the Yellowstone Club, where lift tickets aren’t sold to the public. Condos at the club sell for $3 million and up, while houses fetch north of $25 million.
The Big Sky Water & Sewer District can already see a time when its new wastewater treatment plant reaches capacity. It has begun a planning process to prepare for the next 20 years of growth.
The district currently disposes of all its wastewater by irrigating golf courses. In winter, the treated wastewater is simply stored in ponds until irrigation season begins. But growth is eliminating that option: It is simply not practical to store more wastewater all winter long.
Ron Edwards, the district’s general manager, is honest about river discharge: The district will be investigating it as a wastewater disposal option. It owes ratepayers an honest look at this option, he said, even though many of them oppose it.
Finding a Solution
River discharge is something virtually everyone on water solutions forum wants to avoid. Instead, there was broad support for another option: Snowmaking.
Ski resorts in the area currently use groundwater for snowmaking – the same groundwater, in some cases, that Big Sky relies upon for drinking water. Switching to highly treated wastewater would help preserve that groundwater and also avoid wastewater discharge into the river.
Snowmaking offers a nearly limitless solution, because ski areas can never have too much snow. It would also help solve the problem of declining winter snowfall, a consequence of climate change.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to have a skiable snowpack come Thanksgiving or December,” said Chandler. “The trend we’re seeing is that snowmaking is going to become more and more necessary to hit those opening dates.”
Only a handful of ski areas in the United States use treated wastewater for snowmaking. In 2012, Arizona Snowbowl became the first in the world, using wastewater treated by the city of Flagstaff. Now, 100 percent of its snowmaking water comes from treated effluent. Then came resorts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Sierra Summit in California and several in Europe.
Taking this step at an elite resort area like Big Sky, however, would mark a significant step in the trend. Essentially, the world’s wealthiest skiers would be choosing to blanket their ski runs in frozen wastewater over other options, strictly in the name of sustainability.
“A lot of people in Big Sky welcome the growth and jobs and prosperity,” Bosse said. “But there’s virtually no one in that community that’s willing to accept those things if it comes at a cost to the Gallatin River. I think that is pretty unique.”
Snowmaking would require building a whole new water distribution network to get the treated wastewater up to the ski slopes. No cost estimates have been developed yet, but it would surely cost more than simply dumping wastewater into the river.
Upgrading the wastewater treatment plant is also key to the process. The effluent will have to be treated to a much higher standard before it would be considered acceptable for snowmaking. This would also be more expensive than river discharge.
So the grand solution likely means bigger bills for property owners connected to the sewage system, and some kind of cost-sharing agreement with ski areas that benefit from the wastewater.
And there is another unknown: Using wastewater for snowmaking has never been done in Montana before. So it’s not clear if the state will issue permits for the process or, if it does, what the permit requirements will look like, Edwards said.
“We are all here for the same reason, which is the pristine environment we live in,” said Chandler. “The unusual part of this, I think, is we’re not driven by crisis today. We see challenges in the near future, and that’s why we’re addressing them today.”
In fact, Montana may represent a rare combination: A conservative state where residents are willing to pay more for their water if it means preserving clean, free-flowing rivers.