“You have all these grandfather systems that we know are causing water quality problems, but there’s no way to stop them at this point,” he said.
For Alsentzer, the bottom line is that the DEQ has the ability to demand more from new developers given the existing issues with Gallatin, but has instead chosen to grant categorical exclusions and ignore cumulative environmental effects. The river and the landscape are suffering “an infamous death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
“We have a whole system of government that is captured by business,” Alsentzer said. “If there’s a theme in Montana, it’s that our agencies are no longer dealing with the public. They are not interested in the intrinsic value of our rivers or how to protect them from damage. They are looking at how to incentivize and rationalize business. They are looking for ways to make more money.
Among the documents Waterkeeper unearthed via its request for public records is a response from a state engineer to Boe’s email regarding the change in career plan. In it, John McDunn pointed to a Montana administrative rule that gives the DEQ broad power to “impose specific requirements for the treatment and disposal of wastewater that are necessary and appropriate to” to protect the quality of the water. water.
Davin, the DEQ spokesperson, said the agency shares concerns about nutrients and algae in the Gallatin River and is supporting efforts to monitor and restore the Gallatin River with state funding and technical assistance. Regarding DEQ’s power to implement new safeguards, Davin said “further oversight is needed before it can be determined whether additional requirements or limitations would be part of the next steps.”
When The HuffPost contacted John Meyer, executive director of the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, by phone last week, he was in the sewer district watching a hydrologist put fluorescent tracer dye into sewage retention ponds.
Last summer, his company and two conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the Sewer District alleging that polluted water is flowing from the facility to West Fork, in violation of the Clean Water Act, and that the district irrigates a Big Sky golf course with wastewater treated with high nitrogen levels. The dye will determine if the sewage is actually going from the ponds to West Fork.
The Meyer company filed a request in February, asking a federal judge to ban the district from adding new sewer connections, which would essentially impose a de facto moratorium on new developments until the sewer district decreases nitrogen levels in its wastewater. The court is due to hold a hearing next month for the arguments in the case.
A glimmer of hope”
Big Sky’s water problems have almost certainly been exacerbated by the fact that the community is unincorporated, is located in two separate counties, and without the kind of central municipal government that could, for example, enforce building codes.
Resort and land developers, real estate agents and managers sit on the boards of directors of the local resort tax organization, Big Sky community and nonprofit recreation, Sewer District and the Waters and Gallatin River Task Force.
People The HuffPost interviewed for this story described it, among other things, as the ‘Wild West’, a sort of ‘stronghold’ and ‘corporate town’ with little oversight and where residents’ income and livelihoods are directly linked. linked to the lucrative development boom.
And it’s not just any boom. From February 2020 to February 2021, the median price of a single-family home in the big Big Sky jumped an astonishing 65%, from $ 1.72 million to $ 2.85 million.
“If anyone could do better, in terms of using technology, investment and science to find a way to control their impact on the waterway, [Big Sky] could do it, ”Alsentzer said.
The biggest obstacle to future growth and development is the treatment and disposal of wastewater. With its nearly 20-year-old sewage treatment plant almost at full capacity, Big Sky has its back to the wall. The Yellowstone Club’s snow disposal effort will help take some of the pressure off, but not enough.
Late last year, the Gallatin County Commission approved the formation of a new sewage and water district in Gallatin Canyon, a first step towards a more centralized system in the large Big Sky. Additionally, the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District is expected to begin construction this summer on a nearly $ 50 million upgrade to its existing water treatment facility. The first phase of the project, which is expected to be completed in 2023, will increase the plant’s capacity by approximately 50% and significantly reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the treated water. A second phase will connect homes and subdivisions in Big Sky Canyon Valley, including the Quarry Project, to the improved sanitation facility. Wastewater from the canyon will be piped to Big Sky and treated, and the district is currently exploring various disposal options, including groundwater disposal and reuse, according to Ron Edwards, general manager of the Big Sky Water and Sewer District and member of the Gallatin River Task Force Board.
“Cities of 3,000 people don’t build $ 50 million processing plants,” Edwards said. For Big Sky, undertaking such a project is “a statement of what we believe in” as a community of sources, he added.
Montana State Senator Pat Flowers (D-Belgrade), who represents Big Sky, called the planned infrastructure upgrades “a ray of hope on the horizon, ”but expressed concern about what will happen to water quality on the Gallatin in the years leading up to the end of the project.
“This is the legacy of natural resources that we have all been able to benefit from,” he said. “This includes clean, cold water. If we don’t have that, it really negatively affects our enjoyment of this place, but also the economy.
Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) Wants these resources to be forever protected from pollution and special interests. It is introduced a law designate 377 miles of rivers, including a 39-mile stretch of the Upper Gallatin, as “wild and scenic,” the highest level of federal protection for waterways.
Steps back in Big Sky Country
Montana politicians love to recite the old adage that in Big Sky Country “whiskey is to drink – water is to fight.” And they are quick to praise the clean rivers and wild trout that attract so many outdoor enthusiasts to the state every year.
“Fishing has never been stronger,” Montana Governor Greg Gianforte (R) said of the upper Missouri River in a video from may on small town businesses like Craig gearing up for a busy summer season after a tough year during the coronavirus pandemic.
That same week, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper alerted DEQ to decomposing biological “gunk” stretching for miles from the Missouri River just above Craig. In a May 20 email response, which Waterkeeper shared with The HuffPost, DEQ’s water quality supervisor Darrin Kron wrote that “this condition seems out of the ordinary for this time of year”, that the substance “could be a combination of dead algae from last fall and new growth ”, but that its section is “very low on technical personnel resources at this time and cannot come out for monitoring or investigation.”
Montana’s water problems aren’t limited to Big Sky or even the upper Missouri River. It is in the middle of a statewide drought emergency declaration; more … than a third of its river miles are disturbed by nutrient pollution; scientists have documented a sharp drop in brown trout populations across the southwestern part of the state; and each summer brings new blooms of harmful algae and killed fish. Last week, a coalition of fly fishing companies and conservation groups sent a letter to Gianforte warning him that “Montana’s world-class cold-water fisheries are on the decline.”
These growing threats come as Gianforte pursues a regressive environmental agenda. It largely dismissed and ignored the threat of climate change, which threatens to devastate cold water trout fishing. Two weeks before his video along the Missouri River, the Governor signed in law a bill that did away with digital nutritional standards the state passed just six years ago to better protect its water resources and prevent the type of nutrient pollution that leads to algae blooms, death fish and other environmental threats. More recently he took of The Montana of a bipartisan coalition of more than two dozen states pledged to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, then turned around two days later and pleaded for the US department of Agriculture declares drought emergency in his state.
“We are dismantling our water quality laws in Montana. How do you think it will work out for our trout fisheries? Pat Byorth, a former state fisheries biologist who now works for Trout Unlimited and sits on the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, noted on fly fishing company Orvis podcast this week.
“You have to protect the habitat if you want healthy fish,” he added.
Meanwhile, Gianforte appeals to fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts, inviting them to come and enjoy the “last best place”.
“Whether you imagine yourself knee deep in a crystal-clear mountain stream or soaking up the splendor of a Montana sunset on a quiet evening,” he wrote for the site State Travel Web, “Made in Montana moments await.
Chris D’Angelo is a journalist for The HuffPost, based in Washington, DC E-mail High Country News To [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.