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Know the West

Development threatens one of Montana’s ‘blue-ribbon’ trout rivers

Noxious algae is choking the very watershed that’s drawing people to develop property there.

 

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is republished here through the Climate Desk partnership.

Montana’s exclusive Yellowstone Club is a private playground for the rich and famous: world-class skiing and golfing, luxurious multimillion-dollar homes nestled in the mountains, and the company of other elites. 

“Your mountain sanctuary awaits,” the club’s website says, alongside revolving videos of people fly fishing on the Gallatin River and skiing fresh lines on empty slopes. Bill Gates, Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel are just a few members of the Yellowstone Club, where condos start at around $4 million and mansions fetch upward of $25 million.

But in the near future, the club’s “private powder” — yes, it trademarked that phrase — will be generated in part from treated wastewater. The club and the broader community of Big Sky already use effluent to water four area golf courses, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has granted the private resort a permit to use more than 25 million gallons of wastewater for early-season snowmaking. The club’s environmental manager, Rick Chandler, said the move “will help conserve our limited water supply and protect the watershed” by increasing snowpack and helping sustain river flows late in the season.

The Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Montana, touts itself as the only private mountain ski resort in the world.

A number of other ski resorts, including Snowbowl in Arizona, have also adopted waste-to-snow reuse, and several environmental and wildlife advocacy groups supported the Yellowstone Club’s effort. But there is something comically dystopian about America’s wealthiest spending a fortune to ski atop each other’s sewage. More seriously, it reflects long-standing water issues in the ritzy, unincorporated resort community of Big Sky, and the environmental costs of the area’s rapid growth.

The community has been home to Big Sky Resort, a public ski mountain, since the early 1970s, but the population has doubled in a little more than a decade, from around 1,500 in 2010 to 3,000 today. The 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” helped put this area on the map; many of the fly fishing scenes were filmed on the Gallatin River, a headwaters tributary of the Missouri River and a renowned “blue-ribbon” trout fishery that flows out of the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. The pandemic has only added to the boom, with people fleeing large cities to establish permanent residency in Big Sky. 

Conservationists fear all this is fueling a crisis on the river. 

Since summer 2005, neon green algae — a telltale sign of an unhealthy river — has plagued the West Fork Gallatin, which flows directly through the resort town, leaving a “green trail” extending downstream of where the tributary dumps into the Gallatin. 

More recently, the problem has exploded on the river’s main stem. For the last three summers, the noxious algae has choked a large stretch of water around Big Sky, fouling one of the very resources that’s drawn wealthy Americans to gobble up property there. (See top video of drone footage shot by the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper in August 2020, showing a bloom of green algae along the Gallatin River, several miles downstream from the resort community of Big Sky.) An unprecedented bloom in 2018 stretched along more than 20 miles of the river and its tributaries, covering as much as 75% of the river bottom in some locations. 

Experts are working to pinpoint exactly what’s driving recent blooms, but chronic algae around Big Sky has been largely attributed to nutrient pollution from the area’s ballooning development. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous occur naturally, but humans contribute even more from our septic tanks and other wastewater treatment systems, fertilizers, and clearing land for development. Pollution from America’s most prosperous is sullying a pristine watershed, with help from climate change-driven increases in air and water temperatures and reduced snowpack and river water levels.

This algae is nontoxic, but experts warn it can affect overall river health, reducing oxygen levels in the water and potentially harming fish and the bugs they feed on — never mind its ability to sully an angler’s experience.

“Nutrients load the gun. Temperature and heat pulls the trigger.”

This summer isn’t expected to be much better on the Gallatin. Montana is experiencing blistering, abnormal heat and drought conditions, and the green gunk is already in bloom.

“We have some of the best natural-state streams, and algae blooms are showing they are out of whack,” said Guy Alsentzer, executive director and founder of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, an environmental group based in Bozeman. “Nutrients load the gun. Temperature and heat pulls the trigger.” 

Water woes

Three main streams — the West, Middle and South forks of the Gallatin — flow through Big Sky before draining into the river’s main stem a few miles below the resort town. All three have been designated “impaired” waterways for more than a decade due to nutrient loads that exceed state water standards.