Affluent effluent stinks, too

  • Sewage dumping could affect fishing spots like this one near Belgrade

    Kris Fedro
 

BIG SKY, Mont. - For years, this posh resort community of 2,500 people leaked partially treated sewage into the pristine waters of the Gallatin River, the blue-ribbon trout stream in Robert Redford's movie, A River Runs Through It.

In 1991 alone, an estimated 47 million gallons of effluent seeped illegally into the groundwater that feeds the Gallatin, which eventually flows into the Missouri River. That infuriated locals, anglers and environmentalists, while a bigger push came from the state; it demanded that Big Sky fix the problem.

Since then, the Big Sky Sewer and Water District has developed a $17.3 million plan, with officials intending to use most of the treated effluent to irrigate a golf course or make snow.

Still, in the future, some treated sewage will most likely be dumped back into the Gallatin River. That day is far off - perhaps in the year 2015 - but by then this unincorporated community, centered around Boyne USA's Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort, could be a part-time or full-time home to almost 8,000 families. The thought of its affluent effluent flowing into the Gallatin River has created a stink.

"Money is indifferent to me and cost is irrelevant," one resident said at a recent public meeting. "If it costs a few extra dollars in taxes for the preservation of that river, I'm in favor of it."

Supporters of the plan say treatment will go beyond state regulations for discharge, but opponents contend even treated sewage should not be dumped into the stream. Critics say there already is enough pollution from private septic systems and other sources. The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and others have called for a cumulative study of wastewater discharges into the river.

Nonetheless, on Jan. 15, the state Department of Environmental Quality approved the Big Sky Sewer and Water District's proposal, though Montana officials may still change their minds as the district's long-term plans are made public this spring.

Critics speak out

"The public spoke. This was not a desirable outcome," said Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Why didn't the state listen to what the people wanted?"

The district's plan relies on building a new sewage treatment plant. Funding for the project will come from both user fees and local sales tax. To many, however, cost is irrelevant when it comes to protecting the river.

But cost is an issue, says Ron Edwards, the manager of the sewer district, since the district is already committing more than it must to ensure water quality. A traditional plant that could legally discharge 100 percent of the wastewater into the river would cost only about $8 million.

Many Montana cities, including Bozeman, Livingston and Billings, discharge treated wastewater into nearby rivers. The Big Sky proposal seems to have ignited the passion it has because of the river's pristine image and the presumed affluence of many Big Sky residents.

For some, skepticism also comes from the poor track record of the resort.

"I simply don't trust Big Sky," said Brian Leland, a recent unsuccessful candidate for the Gallatin County Commission. "Big Sky is a company town. The bottom line is the number one consideration there.

"We can make Perrier out of Big Sky wastewater, but is there the financial commitment to do that?"

If snowmaking is approved as a use for the treated water, district officials said it would not be used on ski slopes, partly because skiers might find it distasteful, and partly because it is a new technology that officials want to test it on flat land first. Sewer discharge into the river would take place in the high-water months of spring in order to speed the dilution of the wastewater.

Officials said the water would be safe, and even in the event of a failure at one of the treatment plants, there would be enough storage to keep raw sewage out of the river.

Critics were leery of the promises. "We're your canaries in the coal mine of the Gallatin River," said Mike Harrelson of Bozeman, who floats the stream. "Upsets can get us canaries awfully sick."

In issuing the permit, Montana officials said discharge into the river should be a last resort, after storage, land application or snowmaking. Monitoring of the river would be done quarterly and, during the discharge period, on a weekly basis. An employee has said that even with the discharge, the blue-ribbon trout stream should be less polluted than it was in 1970.

Scott said the state should have encouraged other alternatives before giving Big Sky approval for any discharge into the river.

The district estimates that by 2015, about 6 percent of the treated effluent will have to be discharged into the river. The state authorized a discharge of no more than 15 million gallons a year and only between March and July. No discharges could be made until 2015, the state said, except in case of an emergency.

Big Sky has been working for years to bring its sewage system into compliance with state law. In 1993, the state found illegal leaks in the system were polluting the river and imposed a ban on new hookups until a new system and a plan to deal with future waste were in place. The ban was lifted in 1996.

So far, about $6 million worth of work has been done, including the lining of waste ponds and installing an irrigation system for the golf course. Snowmaking could begin in the next two years.

Joe Kolman reports out of the Billings Gazette's Bozeman Bureau.

You can ...

* Comment on the Big Sky sewage plan by writing to the Department of Environmental Quality at 1520 E. Sixth Ave., Helena, MT 59620. Copies of the plan can be obtained from the same address, or by calling 406/444-3080, or at the Web site: www.deq.state.mt.us.

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