Posh Montana Ski Town Considers Using Treated Wastewater to Make Snow

Pam Wright
Published: February 6, 2018

An overview of the Big Sky Resort in Big Sky, Montana.
(AP Photo/Lucas Flory)

A booming Montana ski town is considering the use of treated water to make snow in an attempt to offset a possible water shortage and to avoid discharging wastewater into the beloved Gallatin River.

Big Sky, in southwestern Montana, is home to some 2,300 full-time residents and scores of people who stay at posh vacation homes in one of the most exclusive ski resorts in the country.

Years ago, Big Sky was a sparsely populated enclave that was frequented by ski bums and flyfishermen. According to News Deeply, the town about 50 miles from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park saw a boom after the 1992 Robert Redford movie "A River Runs Through It," which created an interest in the scenic Gallatin River, used for some of the most iconic flyfishing scenes in the film.

(MORE: Environmentalists Fight to Save Plum Island)

It is also home to one of the most exclusive gated ski and golf resorts in the nation, the Yellowstone Club. Ski lift tickets at the resort are not made available to the public, only to wealthy condominium and homeowners, who pay an average of $3 million and $25 million, respectively, for their vacation homes.

With the boom came significant problems, including a possible water crisis as groundwater reserves – the only source of the town's drinking water – become depleted. The town also struggles with wastewater treatment and what to do with the water once treated. A $15 million expansion of Big Sky's treatment center 15 years ago is already proving inadequate.

Solutions are necessary and desired as long as no one mentions the obvious: discharging the treated water back into the Gallatin. While that might be the simplest solution, there is a universal disdain for any thought of putting sewage into the beloved river.

Currently, the town uses the wastewater to irrigate golf courses in the summer, while in the winter, the wastewater is stored in ponds. Continued growth of the city means the ponds may soon become unsustainable, so a solution must be determined quickly.

"We need to find an alternative reuse method that releases wastewater in the winter," Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, told weather.com in an email. "In addition, this wastewater reuse method will help the ski resorts plan for anticipated future changes in snowfall with climate change. It’s a win-win."

(MORE: Montana: Beer in the Climate Crosshairs)

In response to the growing pains, the Gallatin River Task Force gathered a group of three dozen community leaders to create a forum known as the Big Sky Sustainable Water Solutions to explore possible fixes to the town's water issues.

One of the more popular suggestions is to use the treated wastewater for snow at the ski resorts. Proponents of the proposal see three positives: helping resorts as snowfall declines from climate change, discharging the wastewater responsibly and possibly replenishing the groundwater reserves during spring runoffs.

"Since Big Sky is located at the headwaters of the Gallatin and Madison rivers, we have no upstream sources of water," Gardner said. "Reusing wastewater, as snow will replenish aquifers, provides more opportunity for natural treatment and slowly releases water to our rivers when they need it most in the late season (summer/fall)."

According to the forum's report, there is community backing of the proposal despite the "potentially negative public perception to skiing on snow created from reclaimed water."

The report notes that this technique is being applied at other ski areas in the United States. Both of the town's biggest ski operators, Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort, are in favor of putting the plan in place by 2020.

Gardner noted that this method of wastewater reuse hasn't been done in Montana, so the state will need to determine the permitting guidelines.

"Locally, there will need to be infrastructure improvements to store and transport treated wastewater, agreements negotiated among the resort areas and the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, and a monitoring network developed to track any impacts to receiving waters," Gardner said.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.