Water is becoming a critical issue in Big Sky as growth exceeds supply and water quality is more stringently questioned.
‘Needs, not wants’ discussed at water and sewer meeting
April 20, 2023 Posted By Jack Reaney EBS Reporter
A ‘win-win’ agreement could enable both the Little Coyote Pond restoration project and the construction of a million-gallon tank to store community water, a topic of primary discussion at the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District’s monthly board meeting on April 18. Other topics included the district’s ongoing talent search to eventually replace General Manager Ron Edwards upon retirement, a review of the March 29 Flatiron subcommittee meeting, the announcement of a significant reduction to Big Sky property taxes and a presentation by Gallatin River Task Force. For the Big Sky Owners Association to move forward with its pond restoration project— restoring the West Fork of the Gallatin River and establishing a fishery and community recreation area—the organization must obtain water rights from the water and sewer district. The district proposed that in exchange for those water rights, BSOA confirms an easement on Crazy Horse Road so the district can build a million-gallon storage tank on vacant land which the district is working to acquire from NorthWestern Energy.
The Little Coyote Pond is located across from the Big Sky Community Park. PHOTO BY JACK REANEYThe district’s proposal also included language stating that the water tank may require up to two acres of land and a property line adjustment. The BSOA rejected the proposal on March 31. As a preface to Tuesday’s board discussion, board member Dick Fast recounted recent communications, which included BSOA’s intent to terminate negotiations. Fast concluded that the board intends “to determine if there is some way forward that will benefit BSOA, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, and the community of Big Sky as a whole.”
BSOA board chair George Mueller joined Tuesday’s meeting virtually. He said BSOA’s board sees a simple solution: reverting to an eight-year-old memorandum of understanding which both parties signed before BSCWSD had interest in building a water tank. He also said that the BSOA board perceives the water and sewer district as “trying to interject new and additional terms such as, for example, wanting us to give you two acres of land,” which were not contemplated in the original MOU.
“My view as chairman of BSOA is, we need to get our pond project started. We have maybe a month to sign our final contract if we’re going to get work done this year,” Mueller said.
District Board Chair Brian Wheeler opened board discussion, and Mueller interjected that the process of passing drafts and emails back and forth has not been successful. He suggested a small group meeting between both parties to talk it through and “iron it out at the table.”
“We agree that you need a new water tank and are not intending to stand in the way of that happening,” Mueller said. His assumption, he added, was that the district would dismantle the existing 250,000-gallon water tank near the new tank’s proposed site, to which Wheeler responded hesitantly—water storage, Wheeler said, is “one of the most important assets we all have in Big Sky.”
Mueller and the district board agreed to meet during the first week of May. They did not pick an exact date during Tuesday’s meeting. “I just want to be clear on the ask. We’re requesting two items,” Wheeler said. “They’re needs, not wants… They benefit all BSOA members, the entire Big Sky community regarding public health and safety. This is a one-million-gallon tank that’s gonna be sitting up in a topographic location that’s ideal for gravity feed—in a catastrophic fire or power loss or anything like that.”
Wheeler clarified that the district’s .23-acre parcel from NorthWestern Energy would be nearly enough land for the tank itself, and only a temporary easement might be necessary for space during construction. The board agreed that the project would likely not require ‘up to two acres’ as stated in the initial proposal. The proposed tank at the end of Crazy Horse Road would be hidden from view, district officials say.
“I think this would be a great opportunity to celebrate two great projects in the community, and that’s in collaboration with the BSOA. It’s a win. Let’s celebrate the win, let’s not get into a logjam,” Wheeler said. District Water Superintendent Jim Muscat called the upgrade a “no-brainer.”
“It’s real obvious that Big Sky has grown, that’s the same tank [from 1970],” Muscat said. “We need to upsize that tank to match the growth of the area.”
Tax relief for Big Sky property owners
For two decades, Big Sky homeowners have paid property taxes for water and sewer facilities.
Effective 2023, the hefty sewer portion of the BSCWSD tax will disappear as debt for the current—soon to be retired—sewage treatment plant has been completely paid, according to district Finance Officer Terry Smith. The outgoing plant was built in 2002 and funded in part by Resort Tax, but mostly through property tax.
“Our last payment of $867,411 will be paid on July 1, 2023,” Smith told EBS.
In 2022, the district collected $1.35 million in combined water and sewer tax. In 2023, the district will collect only $324,000—a $1.1 million tax reduction, roughly four-fold.
“I think our property owners will be quite happy to see their tax bill this year,” Smith said during Tuesday’s meeting.
“Our mill rate is going down significantly,” Edwards added. “This is kind of a benchmark for us.”
BSCWSD’s mill rate is dropping from approximately 36% to 9%.
Goal to reduce water use by 20%
During the meeting, leaders from the Gallatin River Task Force presented on the value of water conservation.
Through water-wise programs including rebates and incentives, the Task Force has saved an estimated 9.28 million gallons of water and engaged 151 participants.
“[That’s something] we are pretty proud of, but that being said it’s a pretty small percentage of the Big Sky community… It’s only about 5%,” said Conservation Manager Jessica Olsen.
By the end of June, the Task Force plans to launch a “drought dashboard” website to inform the public of current drought status, trends and timely recommendations.
Olsen said irrigation is the number one water use in Big Sky, and that the Task Force hopes to gain support from the district to reduce it. In the past year, the Task Force began offering rebates for water-wise landscaping, turf conversion and upgrades to efficient irrigation systems, in addition to rebates for water-efficient indoor fixtures.
“I think what a lot of people think is, if you’re doing a water-wise landscape you’re going to get some desert-looking landscape, which is not really the case,” said Chief Operating Officer Emily O’Connor, adding that the Task Force plans to plant demonstration gardens to showcase water-wise landscaping. “You can get the look you want and still save a ton [of water].”
Olsen said that through education and partnerships—including a website with workshops and classes on water-wise landscaping—the Task Force has a goal to reduce community water use by 20%.
“We also just want to commend the water and sewer district for efforts you’ve taken. We see you as a leader in water conservation in this community as the largest water provider,” Olsen said.
She later added that the Task Force will require support from BSCWSD as a water provider in order to be eligible for certain grants in the upcoming fiscal year.
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