Big Sky Montana Rivers Contaminated with Wastewater Toxins

Can’t Fish Big Sky Montana Rivers

The waters of Big Sky embrace the marvels of the 21st century. They’re encompassed by “pet waste, poorly maintained septic systems, land application of treated wastewater, fertilizer, household detergents and erosion.” (Dore 2021a) The runoff from these pollutants causes destruction to the river’s wildlife, and its fish population (sciencedirect n.d.). It leaves the dreams of many shattered. The waters of Montana never fished again. If what politicians call progress isn’t slowed, the damage to the ecosystem might become irreversible. But even with the signs in plain sight, they fall on deaf ears. When cash is king, even a tornado becomes silent.

Why? Rich out-of-state West Coasters need prime landscapes for their vacation homes (Dore 2021b).

“We’re asking the Court to stop the Yellowstone Club from building vacation houses because they have nowhere to put their sewage.”

John Meyer, Cottonwood’s attorney

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They’ll bring millions into developers’ hands and politicians’ pockets. The builders won’t hit the brakes to solve underlying issues: toxins drain into the Big Sky waterways. It’s a win for development and a loss for the river (Dore 2021a).

”The growth that we’re experiencing right now in southwest Montana is totally unsustainable. You can’t continue to grow at the pace we’re growing and not pollute our surface waters,”

Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director of American Rivers

But to save face in the public eye, they find innovative ways to displace the sewage. Rather than dump (treated or not) into the river, they irrigate golf courses and generate fake snow. It’s liberal logic 101 in action; runoff goes where runoff goes, right into the ground and river.

What most don’t realize is that the damage doesn’t end with toxins. The Gallatin River and its inhabitants suffer from green algae buildup. The contamination brought by new development dresses her. (Chris D’Angelo and Print 2021). The once pristine river now faces ruin.

“We have some of the best natural-state streams, and algae blooms are showing they are out of whack, … Nutrients load the gun. Temperature and heat pulls the trigger.”

Guy Alsentzer, executive director and founder of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, an environmental group based in Bozeman.

Money outweighs the ecosystem in these sought-after areas. Water quality takes a direct hit as science can’t compete with local real estate investors.

“We shouldn’t be piecemeal approaching what’s happening in the greater community of Big Sky, … We need to take a holistic approach and the best thing to do right now is to hit pause. We need to hit pause on everything to let the science catch up and direct how we can grow without growth becoming a zero-sum game where the river is the loser.”

Guy Alsentzer

And with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in charge, Montana suffers.

“The Montana DEQ is asleep at the switch when it comes to protecting our water from irresponsible subdivisions and poorly planned development.”

Derf Johnson, an attorney with the Montana Environmental Quality Information Center

Big Sky Rock LLC could place the final nail in the river’s coffin. A 256-unit condo and family homes 800 feet from the river’s edge equals more sewage issues and “potential impact to surface water.” (Chris D’Angelo and Print 2021)

“You’ve got all these grandfathered systems going in that we know are causing water quality problems, but there’s no way to stop them [the developers at this point.”

David Erickson, co-owner of SpeticNet

If the people of Montana don’t step up and replace those who run their agencies, it’ll only get worse. The characters in charge care about one thing: How to line their pockets at the rivers’ expense. Their decisions have negative consequences on entire communities, wildlife, and the landscape. And as explained by the DEQ, they themselves are worthless. Today they rely on the Gallatin River Task Force’s monitoring system. But without further surveillance, they’re not in a position to add safeguards. The excuse, they can’t determine if they need more requirements: Typical political banter.

Violation of The Clean Water Act

Because of the incompetence of those in charge, a few groups stepped up. Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Gallatin Wildlife Association, and Montana Rivers filed suit. They allege the Big Sky Water and Sewer District Water Resources Recovery Facility (WRRF) violated the Clean Water Act (CWA). The sewer district released contaminants into the East Fork without a permit which violates section 301 (a) of the CWA; No one can release pollutants into water passages used for commerce or transportation (US EPA 2015). And the Montana River outlined falls under this code. It connects to a continuous interstate waterway (NA 2022). Now pharmaceuticals and other toxins plague the West Fork. A place where local families and tourists alike come to enjoy (Inc 2020). The waters might also contain “unhealthy levels of E. coli, phosphorus, and chloride, not to mention parasites, pathogens and pharmaceuticals.”

Why? Back in 2016, a pipe broke and flooded the river with 35 million gallons of wastewater (NA 2016). Today, they still release “treated” toxins into the river.

In Closing

In closing, the Gallatin River affects not only Montana. With its 120-mile run, it breaches the Missouri River.

These decisions have an extensive impact on aquatic life outside Montana’s waterways. And when places like the Yellowstone Club, Big Sky Resort, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, and Moonlight Basin use the wastewater to irrigate their courses, it only compounds the crisis (Dore 2021b).

Money may be the root of all evil. But from where I sit, it isn’t the money. It’s the greed from self-interest groups, where cash takes precedence over humanity.

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money [avarice, the greed] is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10, NKJV)

It’s time to slow down new development in Montana, or the once-loved rivers will no longer bear its fruit: the blue-ribbon trophy trout.


Ben Kryzinski. 2021. “Meth-Addicted Trout Will Chase a Fix.” Hatch Magazine – Fly Fishing, etc. July 9, 2021.

Chris D’Angelo, and 2021 Like Tweet Email Print. 2021. “Development Threatens One of Montana’s ‘Blue-Ribbon’ Trout Rivers.” HighCountry News. July 28, 2021.

Dore, Helena. 2021. “No Perfect Solutions: The Fight over How to Protect the Gallatin River from Pollution.” Bozeman Daily Chronicle. November 19, 2021.

———. 2021b. “Lawsuit Filed Against Yellowstone Club over Nitrogen Pollution Claims.” Bozeman Daily Chronicle. December 18, 2021.

Inc, Docket Alarm. 2020. “Cottonwood Environmental Law Center Et Al v. Edwards Et Al, 2:20-Cv-00028, No. 1 (D.Mont. Jul. 10, 2020).” Docket Alarm. July 10, 2020.

Laura Lundquist. 2021. “The Fight for Montana’s Water.” Hatch Magazine – Fly Fishing, etc. July 7, 2021.

NA. 2016. “Estimated 35 Million Gallons of Wastewater Spills into Gallatin River – Upper Missouri Waterkeeper®.” Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. March 4, 2016.

———. 2022. “Navigable Waters.” 2022.

sciencedirect. n.d. “Nutrient Loading – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” Accessed March 9, 2022.

US EPA, OW. 2015. “Legal Authority for CWA Analytical Methods.” Reports and Assessments. October 2, 2015.

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