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Gallatin River / Big Sky
also see: Outstanding Resource Water

In the 1860s, following the Civil War, the federal government granted large tracts of land to the Northern Pacific Railroad. Following World War II, the U.S.A. unfortunately began to dismantle the nation’s railroad system and Northern Pacific Corp. began to log and sell their lands. In the 1950s, environmentalists began to press the railroad corporation to return their lands to the federal government because they failed to maintain the railroads. The Northern Pacific Railroad immediately formed the Plum Creek Timber Company to avoid litigation and gain a tax dodge. Over the 1950s and 60s, they began to methodically clearcut their lands and sell them to developers when these lands became more valuable for subdivisions than for logging, grazing and mining. Plum Creek Timber Co. is now the largest real estate business in Montana.

Gallatin River, Baker ditch
Gallatin River near Interstate 90 west of Bozeman. Baker ditch diversion is shown at right.

In 1968, Chet and Tippi Huntley were vacationing at Jim and Patty Goodrich’s 320 Ranch, when Jim showed Chet the land around Lone Mountain on the West Fork of the Gallatin River. At that time, Don Corcoran Pulp Co. owned 6,834 acres in the West Fork which in 1970 he sold to Chrysler Realty. Chrysler Motor Co. was attempting to diversify into land speculation and development. February, 1970, Chet Huntley and Governor Forrest Anderson announced a ski, golf and subdivision development. Frank Murry, MT Secretary of State gave Chet the name for “Big Sky.” Chet was chairman of the company with 1% ownership and Chrysler Realty was majority shareholder with 55% shares. Other investors were Montana Power, Northern Pacific Railroad, Conoco, General Electric Pension Fund, Meridian Investment, North- West Airlines and Governor Judge got a condominium. In the spring of 1970, construction began on Meadow Village and in December, 1973, the ski area opened. Then the nation went into an economic slump and Chet died on March 20, 1974, completely disillusioned. Chrysler went bankrupt and sold Big Sky to Everett Kircher of Boyne, Michigan, for 5 cents on the dollar. When the depression ended, wealthy people became wealthier, resulting in a real estate boom which continues today. Environmentalists could not wrest the Northern Pacific Railroad lands back into public ownership due to the tangled web of interconnected companies and corporations.

Big Sky Sewage

The MT Department of Environmental Quality issued a surface water pollution discharge permit to Big Sky for piping treated sewage waste water into the West Gallatin River. This caused a huge cry of protest by river lovers. Big Sky then voted to allow land owned by Big Sky Ski Resort and Lone Moose Meadows Condominiums into the Big Sky Water & Sewer District, so they would not use their permit to dump primary treated sewage into the Gallatin River. Tim Blixseth agreed to spray the waste water onto his golf course in return for sewer hookups for his Yellowstone Club. Big Sky Water & Sewer District members will construct a new waste water treatment plant.

In July 2002, Big Sky Resort faced federal fines of up to $75,000 for destroying a wetland and polluting tributaries of the West Gallatin River. Under the Clean Water Act these were very serious infractions. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the Big Sky Resort filled a wetland near Huntley Lodge and failed to maintain the stream measuring devices and dikes they built in two separate streams which caused the streams to carve into banks, wash sediment downstream and damage fish habitat. The resort filled in the entire wetland while building Moose Ridge Road and cut off a small stream that used to flow through the area. The resort also dumped snow and salt from its parking lot into the wetland which kept vegetation from growing.

Big Sky Co. Water & Sewer District holds a MT Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permit to dump 6% of its total stored sewage effluent into the Gallatin River as a mixing zone. MRA, along with other environmental organizations sued and forced Big Sky to go back to the drawing board.

Big Sky then voted to allow land owned by Big Sky Resort and Lone Moose Meadows Condominiums into the Big Sky Co. Water & Sewer District. The Yellowstone Club can now purchase drinking water from the water and sewer district and the district is entitled to pump treated waste water into winter storage ponds at Yellowstone Club for spray-irrigation of the new golf course. This is an alternative to the discharge of treated waste water into the Gallatin River as was proposed in the original facilities plan.

Big Sky Sewage Plant State Loan

In 1993 DEQ issued a compliance order to the Big Sky Water & Sewage District citing numerous leaks and flows in its infrastructure. The State of Montana recently awarded a $6,500,000, low-interest (3.75%) loan to finance the construction of a new sewage treatment plant at Big Sky. The loan is the largest made by the state's revolving loan fund (coal tax) managed by MT Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The loan is to be repaid over 20 years. The money will be used to correct and replace a faulty water and sewer system with the completion of a new sewage plant, construction of pipelines and two pump stations to carry water from the plant at Meadow Village up to a storage facility at the Yellowstone Club for irrigation of the Club's golf course. Currently, the water and sewage district has 3,300 single-family equivalent housing units. It is expected that there will be 9,900 single-family equivalents by 2030.

The Yellowstone Club

Tim Blixeth's Yellowstone Club was recently charged with pollution of streams, killing trout, diverting and obliterating streams, dam building, breaking down stream banks, pumping water without a permit, operating heavy earth movers in streams without permits or legal authorizations. MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, DEQ and the federal EPA regulators have accused Yellowstone Club associates and contractors of ignoring state stop orders and violating state and federal water quality laws. The violations stem from the construction of a golf course, roads, ski lifts and runs, and the building of more condominiums than permitted. Yellowstone Club was fined $49,625 for violating state subdivision laws. Also see the Big Sky Developers page.

Gallatin River Outstanding Resource Water
also see: Outstanding Resource Water

American Wildlands, along with other environmental organizations, has petitioned the Montana State Board of Environmental Review to designate the Gallatin River an "Outstanding Resource Water." The Board instructed DEQ to look at the environmental, economic and social impacts of the designation. If the river receives the designation, no new point sources of pollution would be allowed on the river and the State could never authorize projects that would significantly degrade the river's water quality.

The Southwest Montana Building Association came out against designation, saying it is too Draconian and uncertain. An EIS must be completed and approved by the Board of Environmental Review, and then goes to the Montana Legislature. If passed it would require the Governor's signature. DEQ planned to ask the 2003 Legislature for EIS funding before proceeding with the study. The Legislature has not responded.

Toxic Trucks and the River

Highway US-191 along the Gallatin River between Four Corners and Big Sky is the second busiest highway commute in Montana as a result of the building boom in Big Sky. MT Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates that 5,300 to 7,500 drivers make the commute every day. Between 2000 and 2004, there were 467 crashes, 111 resulting in injuries and 5 fatalities. Following are recommendations for traffic control:

1. Installing electronic signs that display drivers’ speed and flash warning messages to speeders.

2. Install a traffic light at Big Sky spur road and US 191.

3. Park & Ride for canyon travelers near Four Corners.

4. Additional turn lanes and pull-outs.

The Four Corners Highway Weigh Scales measures 80 to 150 tractor trailer trucks each day and 40 to 100 on weekends. There has been a large increase in gravel trailers. US Highway 191 parallels the blue-ribbon Gallatin River in the narrow Gallatin Canyon.

Truck in Gallatin River
Commercial trucking on Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon

Numerous tanker trucks loaded with boiling asphalt have tipped over on the narrow curves and dumped part of their load. Thus far little or none of it has spilled into the river, but it’s just a matter of time when it will happen and kill the river. DOT refuses to reroute diamond placarded, hazardous substance trucks. They could easily be routed onto I-90 to Three Forks and then south on US-287 through Ennis and into Idaho over Reynolds Pass. Almost nowhere does this truck route closely parallel a river.

U.S. Highway 191 parallels the Gallatin River in the narrow Gallatin Canyon. Numerous tanker semi-trucks loaded with boiling asphalt have tipped over on the narrow curves and dumped part of their load on the ground. Fortunately, thus far, little or none of it has flowed into the river, but it's just a matter of time when one will tip its toxic load into the river and kill it.

The MT Dept. of Transportation refuses to re-route trucks with hazardous cargo through the Gallatin Canyon. Yellowstone National Park has placed a prohibition on diamond-placarded trucks through its 20 miles of 191 within the Park, but a permit can be obtained with a telephone call and payment of a fee. This confusing situation has tied the hands of the Park Service Highway Patrol trying to enforce the prohibition. Montana River Action is working toward prohibition through the Gallatin Canyon of diamond-placarded trucks and all other interstate trucks, which can easily be routed west of Bozeman on I-90 to Three Forks and south on US 287 over Reynolds Pass. Almost none of this route parallels a river.

Manhattan Sewage

Less than a mile north of town, Manhattan's municipal sewage lagoons drain into a ditch that flows north into the Gallatin River. MT DEQ put a stop order on discharge of the treated sewage from the lagoons into the river, because the ammonia and bacteria levels may be violating state and federal water quality standards. DEQ has imposed changes concerning the acceptable levels of phosphate and ammonia running into streams from the sewage treatment process. Ammonia is very toxic to aquatic life says DEQ. The State has jurisdiction over a stream that drains into a navigable river. At the point where the drain pipe comes out of the lagoon, Manhattan must meet state water quality standards. If the State persists in prohibiting dumping in the ditch, Manhattan may consider spray-irrigating the effluent on agricultural fields. Another option is a municipal sewage treatment plant.

The MT Board of Environmental Review is considering changes that would weaken the above rule so that lagoon treated sewage effluent can be dumped into intermittent streams. Manhattan has a daily sewer volume of 148,000 gallons per minute (gpm), which with irrigation increases to 400,000 gpm every May. Three large subdivisions totaling 1,300 homes may want to connect to the sewage system. As the population increases, DEQ requires the discharge water to be cleaner, which would be affected by the following steps:

1. Level of phosphorus removal
2. Sludge handling
3. Disinfection

Day Ranch Subdivision

Craig Bryant, owner of the planned Day Ranch Subdivision, said DNRC's denial of a permit for his large scale wells sets a precedent that will hurt land development. "DNRC is rewriting 130-year old water laws," he says. Two 75 ft. deep wells would pump up to 920 gallon of water per minute at the Gallatin River valley floor, and carry it up 3 miles to irrigate a golf course and provide water to rental cabins and condominiums. Tests show that when the pumps are turned on Fish Creek's water level drops. This means a surface water right must be approved. Surface water rights are no longer allowed in the upper Missouri drainage's after the Legislature closed it in 1997.

The Day Ranch Subdivision is a 2,836-acre plan for an exclusive vacation community, complete with a world-class, 18-hole golf course, 114 vacation homes, 30 condominium cabins and an equestrian center. The development would be in a very dry part of the valley and the proposal disregards water conservation and support of agriculture. Golf courses are notorious for using enormous amounts of water (up to 600,000 gallons) per night in dry weather. The development would seriously impact the aquifers of the Gallatin River, Fish Creek, Gallatin Gateway and local household wells. Golf courses also require large amounts of herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers which will contaminate surface waters and groundwater through runoff and leaching.

There are more than 5,000 water claims filed on the West Gallatin River and 83.7 miles of the Gallatin River drainage are dewatered each year. Dewatering is a reduction of instream flow below the point where stream habitat is adequate for fish.

Chronic dewatering means dewatering happens each year, as in following river sections:

West Gallatin River, from Shedds Bridge to mouth -- 32.7 miles
Baker Creek, from Moreland overflow to mouth -- 10.0 miles
Big Bear Creek, from USFS boundary to mouth -- 5.0 miles
Bridger Creek, from confluence of Spring Creek to mouth -- 10.0 miles
Hyalite (Middle) Creek, from USFS boundary -- 20.0 miles
South Cottonwood Creek, from USFS boundary to W. Gallatin River -- 6.0 miles
Godfrey Creek, from highline canal to Morland ditch -- 11.0 miles
Camp Creek, from Anceny to I-90 -- 21.0 miles

Periodic dewatering happens in drought years:

Sourdough (Bozeman) Creek, from USFS boundary to E. Gallatin River -- 8.0 miles
W. Gallatin River, from Gallatin Gateway to Shedds Bridge -- 5.3 miles

Gallatin River at Central Park

Gallatin River at Central Park. Looking down stream from Gallatin Bridge. Very little flow in river is apparent here.

Bozeman Hot Springs

DEQ has accused the Bozeman Hot Springs of violating Montana law by discharging chlorinated water into a ditch that flows into the Gallatin River. Water treated with chlorine is considered waste water and needs to be regulated when its chlorine level surpasses the legal standard and pollutes state waters. This situation can be remedied by diluting the chlorinated water before it enters the ditch. ~

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