Growth is poised to accelerate in the Big Sky area – and capacity will be added when the new wastewater treatment plant is brought online in 2022.
State, Big Sky reach agreement on town’s wastewater treatment capacity
By Perrin Stein Chronicle Staff Writer Nov 26, 2020
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Big Sky Water and Sewer District have largely resolved issues over the district’s capacity, allowing development in the town to continue.
After spending months evaluating the district, DEQ announced the district’s remaining capacity earlier this month.
The district’s general manager Ron Edwards plans to officially accept the agency’s findings this week.
“We thought we had more capacity than they said, but we aren’t going to contest that,” he said. “We’re going to go with the data they presented.”
DEQ concluded the district’s average daily treatment capacity is about 650,000 gallons. The district now uses an average of about 503,000 gallons each day and has allocated another 49,000 gallons to existing projects, according to a letter from Kevin Smith, chief of DEQ’s engineering bureau. This means the district has about 100,000 gallons available for future distribution.
DEQ plans to review the district’s capacity every three months to ensure it can continue providing hookups until its new wastewater treatment plant is up and running, likely in summer 2022.
“This will address any issue or concerns DEQ may have on capacity, while ensuring a level of confidence to those wishing to develop or modify existing approved subdivision approvals,” Smith wrote.
Even though DEQ concluded the district has less capacity than Edwards had thought, he said he believes the district still has the capacity to serve Big Sky until the new wastewater treatment plant is built.
DEQ has yet to receive Edwards’ official response to its findings, but when it does, the agency will resume review of projects in Big Sky.
The reviews have been paused since this summer when DEQ began assessing the district’s capacity.
DEQ’s announcement about the district’s remaining capacity came after the agency gave the district permission to measure its capacity slightly differently than the agency typically allows. As a resort town, Big Sky has more visitors and part-time residents than other places, meaning the way its wastewater system is used is unique.
Given that the Big Sky Water and Sewer District plans to continue using its own methods for calculating capacity, DEQ asked the district to provide notice if it sees “a change in use or capacity patterns that would either significantly increase or decrease long-term average daily flow,” according to Smith’s letter.
The discrepancy between how DEQ usually calculates a district’s capacity and how the Big Sky Water and Sewer District makes those calculations is what led, in part, to the state agency taking a deeper look at the district over the last several months.
To ensure Big Sky can continue to grow, the district is moving forward with the upgrade and expansion of its wastewater treatment plant.
The district is soliciting bids for the project and plans to review them early next year, Edwards said.
The project has faced recent financial challenges.
The upgrade of the plant was initially estimated to cost $35 million, but the price has since increased to $43 million, due in part to the high cost of concrete.
Edwards had been talking to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation about using a state loan program to pay for some of the new plant, but he recently learned the agency doesn’t have the money to support the project.
He is now working to obtain a bank loan.
Depending on the loan the district is able to secure, the district may need to delay some parts of the project or increase water and sewer rates.
A sizable piece of the project — up to $27 million — is still coming from a voter-approved 1% increase in Big Sky’s resort tax.
The upgrade will increase the plant’s average daily wastewater treatment capacity to 910,000 gallons. Some of the new capacity will be used for workforce housing to help address Big Sky’s shortage of affordable housing.
The project also includes improving the plant’s treatment technology, enabling the district to dispose of treated wastewater in new ways, such as through snowmaking, recharging groundwater and discharging directly into surface water.
The district has not decided which disposal methods it will use, but some conservation groups are worried the district will apply for a permit to discharge directly into the Gallatin River, which they have said could harm the environment.