Voice of the River

A Community Approach to Big Sky’s Water Future

Article by Karen Filipovich, Professional Facilitator 
Photo by Rich Addicks, Photojournalist and Task Force board member

Healthy watersheds and clean and abundant water resources are a vital part of the Big Sky area, now and into the future. Abundant snow on the slopes, fresh water flowing through the West Fork and Jack Creek watersheds and clear, cool water in the Gallatin provides the basis for everything that makes Big Sky great: abundant wildlife and fisheries, beautiful scenery, and the foundation for a year-round tourism economy.

People also need clean drinking and irrigation water, along with safe and effective means of disposing wastewater and effluent. All these needs must be met in a sub-alpine climate that lies at the headwaters of the vast Missouri river system.

Big Sky is growing rapidly, with significant development projected in the next several years. The challenge is to manage water resources and water supply and wastewater infrastructure in a way that allows for smart economic development that supports residents and visitors and sustains the incredible natural amenities that are the reason people live in and visit the Big Sky area.

In December 2015, the Gallatin River Task Force initiated an effort to gauge public interest in convening a community-based, collaborative watershed planning process in the Upper Gallatin River Watershed. The impetus for exploring this idea came from the general absence of a forum for sharing information among interest groups and identifying opportunities to work together towards common watershed goals.

Beginning in January 2016, contacts were made with 33 watershed stakeholders representing community, business, and conservation interests as well as local, state, and federal government. Formal interviews were conducted with input gathered in the areas of water resource concerns and priorities, geographical areas of interest, barriers to progress as well as opportunities, and commitment to participating in a voluntary process. Almost unanimously, there was strong interest voiced in participating in a community-based approach.

Stakeholders were diverse; however, major commonalities emerged. In water resources, the majority identified common concerns in three areas:

  • Clean water supply and availability
  • Wastewater treatment and disposal
  • Sustaining the ecological health of the river systems

The summary of stakeholder input will be completed and available in early May. Because of the strong interest in a community-based approach, the Gallatin River Task Force is seeking funding to ensure that that it has the capacity to move this effort forward effectively.

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