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Carrying capacity: As the Gallatin Valley grows, will there be enough water? | BDC

Water is likely going to be the single biggest issue in our area in regards to future development and carrying capacity.

Carrying capacity: As the Gallatin Valley grows, will there be enough water?

by Nora Shelly Bozeman Daily Chronicle Mar 22, 2024

Snowpack is a core part of the city of Bozeman’s water infrastructure, and it is under threat.

Single snowflakes form the mountains’ snowpack, which melts in the spring, sending water tumbling into Mystic Lake and Hyalite Reservoir. Meltwater then flows down Sourdough and Hyalite creeks into the Gallatin Valley and through irrigation ditches and municipal water pipes.

This water system, which the city of Bozeman has always relied upon, is built on the premise that the accumulated snowpack in the Gallatin and southern Bridger mountains, will melt slowly and evenly throughout the spring into the summer, providing the community with enough water for all the needs of all its people.

But, climate change means that the snowpack will likely be ever smaller and less stable, with less precipitation falling over all and a greater share of it falling as rain, instead of snow. It also means the snowpack will melt quicker in the springtime — sending it out of the area before it can be diverted for use.

Much of the Gallatin Valley is upstream of the headwaters of the Missouri River. It’s often said that Bozeman is at the “headwaters of the headwaters,” meaning there is no significant supply of water upstream of the city.

The Gallatin Valley is a “closed basin” meaning that there are no additional surface water rights up for grabs for Bozeman, or anybody else, to acquire.

The valley continues to grow, and that growth is likely to cause demand for water outstrip the local supply — possibly by upwards of 65%, according to a recent study. So, with potential trouble at home looming in upcoming decades, the city recently spent some time and money looking downstream, to Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

Though Canyon Ferry is about 70 miles away from Bozeman, and roughly 1,000 feet lower in elevation, it has been identified as a possible future water source for the city through a recent, preliminary feasibility study that looked into regional water and wastewater solutions.

There are no real proposals on the table right now for the project, and the city has not committed to it in any way, but city engineer Shawn Kohtz said they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t considering it.

“We’re talking about multiple decades to lift a project like this off the ground,” Kohtz said during a city commission discussion about the topic. “That’s why we’re thinking about this now, because at the time we would get a project online that’s what we need the water.”

The sniff of a proposal of piping in water from Canyon Ferry angered and alarmed some in Bozeman and has bolstered a push from citizens to try to limit development in the face of looming water shortages.

Why are we talking about Canyon Ferry?

Bozeman, Belgrade and Gallatin County all paid for the study, after agreeing in 2021 that water and wastewater capacity was a threat to sustainable growth in the valley.

Currently, the cities of Bozeman and Belgrade have 20,000 acre feet in water resources between the two of them — acre feet is a measurement for how much amount of water that measures how much would need to fill an acre of space by one foot.

The city of Bozeman has predicted that in a worst case climate scenario and with no further conservation, demand for city water could meet the reliable supply as soon as 2027, or in 2032 if climate change impacts are less dire; though it is hoping conservation efforts, and maybe some help from the weather, can push that deadline back as far as 2040.

Belgrade is in a slightly better spot with its water supply.

Belgrade City Manager Neil Cardwell said the story goes that the city incorporated around supplying residents with water after several bad fires. That led to the development of groundwater wells. The city currently has seven such wells, and is looking at adding two more and building in-ground storage facilities.

Cardwell said they are projecting that the city could grow to 20,000 to 30,000 in population in the next 10 to 15 years, and they have enough water for 35,000 to 50,000 residents with proper management.

“We’re just in a position where our groundwater rights match what our growth potential is for a little bit longer,” Cardwell said.

Still, Cardwell said, they have to think about what could happen after that 50,000 population threshold is crossed, and said water planning is part of their larger community master plan work they started last year.

Gallatin County does not directly supply water, and many county residents are on private wells and septic or part of a water and sewer district.

The study looked at a 50-year timeline, when population could far exceed what the valley’s current water supplies might be able to support.

The study estimated at the end of that period, with a 4% growth rate, there could be as many as 450,000 people living in the valley, well over double the number of people living here today.

That amount of people would need 60,000 acre feet of water, leaving a 40,000 acre foot deficit between current water supplies and potential future needs.

Currently, Kohtz said the city of Bozeman uses just 7,000 acre feet annually.

The city notes that there is water available at Canyon Ferry to purchase; it is designed for storage and it is safer from the effects of climate change than the city’s water supply, which is at risk from wildfire impacts.

Canyon Ferry has 2 million acre feet of water storage available, while Hyalite Reservoir has just 10,000 acre feet.

The feasibility study also looked into how such a pipeline could be constructed. It is estimated such a water system would cost north of $1.7 billion and take decades to complete, with an intake structure, treatment facility and a 60-mile long, 54 to 72 inch wide pipeline (constructing a regional wastewater system along with it would add more than another billion to the cost).

“As we think about where you could get a meaningful volume of water, it’s a long distance away, but it’s not out of line with other regional concepts that have been developed,” Nate Weisenburger, a consultant for the study, said during the meeting.

Many think that it is far too early to seriously think about the pipeline idea and that other solutions should be thoroughly vetted before going further down the path of a pipeline.

Bozeman Mayor Terry Cunningham said he would like to focus on how to increase water storage capacity from Hyalite and Sourdough to better match the peak water runoff — the springtime — with peak demand — late summer.

“Working on storage solutions is where I’d like to do a deep dive before I start thinking about water from another basin,” Cunningham said.

Gallatin County Administrator Jim Doar said while the county is open to discussing the idea, they aren’t in any way hitching their horse to it.

Cardwell said he doesn’t think it makes sense for Belgrade to get on board with such an expensive project at this point, and said has concerns that a regional water and wastewater system would incentivize development outside of municipal boundaries and encourage urban sprawl.

Kohtz emphasized that the preliminary study was just to look into whether such a thing was possible, and that there are no plans to advance the idea right now.

While a Canyon Ferry pipeline may be on the table for the distant future, in the short-and medium -term, the city is looking at ramping up its conservation efforts, developing groundwater wells to supplement the surface water it has right now and making the system’s infrastructure more efficient.

The city is planning to start an update of its integrated water resources plan later this year, and is finalizing a proposal for water conservation landscape standards.

“The intent behind that was really to just see if that was even possible,” Kohtz said of the study. “When we’re talking about water supply, we really need to talk about the entire portfolio of things that we can do.”

‘We’ve got a dirty backyard’

A real proposal or not, the reaction to the study showed many are concerned with the city’s current water picture.

Pat Byorth, with Trout Unlimited, said he has concerns about a potential project’s expense, and the quality of the water the city would get from Canyon Ferry.

Byorth said there are water rights that can be bought in the Gallatin Valley, but that he sees a gap in connecting those with available water rights for sale and those, like the city or developers, who want to purchase them. Trout Unlimited is working on setting up a water rights exchange, called the Gallatin Water Trust, for the area to fill that need.

“I think the pipeline project is kind of an attractive distraction right now, it’s not really going to solve our problems in the future,” Byorth said. “I think there’s more practical and less expensive solutions that are available now.”

Guy Alsentzer, the executive director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, said Bozeman needs to “clean up its own backyard” before talking more about a pipeline.

“Our house isn’t in order, we’ve got a dirty backyard and we should really be fixing issues of infrastructure and planning before we talk about (a pipeline),” Alsentzer said. “We’re all proceeding within this assumption that growth is inevitable …We have an unsustainable pattern of development because we are a water scarce valley.”

Both Byorth and Alsentzer both said the city, and other entities in the Gallatin Valley, need to get a handle on growth to inform the water planning conversation.

Cunningham, who said the shocked reaction some had to the 450,000 population estimate used in the report was reasonable, said he thinks a regional conversation is needed to determine what the “carrying capacity” of the county is.

“It’s just been for so long we’ve avoided that conversation, at what point can we not grow if we don’t have the water? We’ve avoided that like the plague,” Byorth said. “It’s always assumed as long as we keep growing we have to find more water, and … people in the Gallatin Valley don’t want to see our rivers dried up just to supply more water to the development.”


The city’s practice of taking cash-in-lieu of water rights is also under scrutiny.

Currently, when a developer is requesting to annex into the city to build a project, they are required to buy water rights that can be transferred to the city to serve the needs of the project.

But, with limited water rights in the area, the city gives developers the option to pay a certain amount of cash-in-lieu to make up for the water impact they are bringing.

Kohtz said most developers opt for cash-in-lieu, which the city then uses to buy water rights. The program has been in place since the 1980s, and they charge about $6,000 per acre-foot for the cash-in-lieu, and buy water rights for about the same, usually in Hyalite Reservoir. The city currently has 60% of the appropriated rights in Hyalite, Kohtz said.

Alsentzer said they are opposed to the practice, and Byorth said he thinks it should be a last resort option, and noted that the water rights exchange may help developers buy wet water to bring to the city.

Alsentzer, who won a case recently in Broadwater County that could have far-reaching impacts concerning exempt wells — or those the state considers too small to require any sort of water rights — likened the cash-in-lieu practice to “shooting ourselves in the foot.”

“I think a very meaningful and impactful way that the city commission could lead in terms of groundwater resource planning, is new development needs to pay it forward and it needs to come to the table with water rights,” Alsentzer said. “New development needs to be part of the solution and (not) just throw money on the table.”

As part of the water conservation plan passed last year, city staff floated an idea that the city could stop allowing cash-in-lieu payments, and instead require developers who don’t have water rights of their own to find a way to retrofit existing water infrastructure to make it more efficient to make up for their impact.

The plan proposes the mandatory water efficiency standards go into place in 2033 — one of the possible deadlines where the city’s water demand could start outpacing its supply. Kohtz said city staff are working on outlining what that program could look like and plan to bring the issue back to the commission this year.

A group of Bozeman residents concerned about the cash-in-lieu practice said they don’t see the proposal helping much.

The group, with Cottonwood Environmental Law Center’s John Meyer, are planning to file a ballot petition with the county elections office to place a question on the November ballot about the issue.

The proposed language would ask voters whether they support requiring developments of more than two units come in with water rights, and prohibiting cash-in-lieu for larger developments, except those that have at least one-third affordable units.

“The intent is to try in the way that we’re doing, to essentially slow down development,” said Dan Carty, who is involved with the effort, “and require that that development brings affordable housing, such that the hard stop date that Bozeman is predicted to run out of water will be delayed so that other solutions can be looked at.”

Meyer said they plan to file the ballot petition soon, after which the city would have 30 days to offer comments on the wording. After that, the group would have 90 days to gather enough signatures to get it on the November ballot.

“We’re asserting our constitutional right in a way the Bozeman commission cannot do,” Meyer said.

Regional work

One thing from the preliminary study that probably won’t be ditched is an emphasis on the need for regional work on water.

The study recommended a regional water authority would likely need to be performed for such a massive project. Though Belgrade isn’t on board for joining an authority at this point, Cardwell said they want to be at the table for water planning conversations.

Kohtz said they plan to focus on getting input from regional partners when the integrated water resources plan is revised later this year.

Gallatin Watershed Council watershed restoration director Lilly McLane helps lead a group called the Gallatin Water Collaborative, which meets regularly to talk about water issues. McLane said she thinks trust between local governments, agricultural users and others will be key moving forward.

“The more entities that are coming together to consider the future of water and wastewater the better,” McLane said. “So if it’s just the city doing it alone, its better if its the city and the county and even better if its the city, county and Belgrade and even better if we’re including Manhattan and Amsterdam, Churchill and Big Sky, and we really need to be building trust and building relationships across jurisdictions.”

Source: Carrying capacity: As the Gallatin Valley grows, will there be enough water? | City |