An exclusive Montana resort wants to turn sewage into snow so that its rich and famous members can ski its slopes in a winter season that’s shrinking because of climate change.
The Yellowstone Club — a ski and golf resort just north of Yellowstone National Park that counts Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel among its members — has asked the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for a permit to allow it to use wastewater for snowmaking operations on its ski slopes.
About a dozen other ski areas across the U.S. have used wastewater to make artificial snow before, but the Yellowstone Club would be the first in Montana. The technique has also been used in Europe and Australia.
Officials at the club say the program would not only ensure the slopes can open on time, usually in late November and early December, but also replenish the area’s watershed and keep streams running longer into the season. And it would allow the growing Big Sky resort area to handle its increasing wastewater volumes.
“It’s an outside-the-box-idea,” said Rich Chandler, environmental manager for the club. “But it also checks a lot of boxes.”
Is it a safe plan for the rich and famous who will occasionally ingest it when they wipe out on the slopes? The short answer from state officials is yes. The method is safe for people and the environment as long as there is close monitoring to ensure contamination levels stay within standards, according to an environmental analysis.
But, the state officials said, that analysis did not study potential pollutants for which there are no environmental standards in wastewater, such as traces of prescription drugs.
A similar effort to turn wastewater into snow was controversial at the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort near Flagstaff. To combat snowless winters there, the resort in the early 2000s purchased wastewater from Flagstaff and pumped it from the treatment plant to the ski area, where it would be turned into snow and sprayed onto the San Francisco Peaks.
That drew protests from the Hopi Tribe, which said the artificial snow posed risks to public health and the environment and would desecrate a mountain it considers sacred. The tribe lost a legal challenge to prevent the Arizona ski area from moving ahead with the plan. In December 2012, the ski area fired up its snow guns and started making powder.
During the legal fight, environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, raised specific concerns about how wastewater can reduce local aquatic populations and cause some male fish to take on female appearances and reproductive traits.
Wastewater’s effect on human health also raises concerns. Although modern water treatment can eliminate many pollutants — and, in some instances, prepare that water for human consumption — some elements still escape the process, specifically pharmaceuticals. The research is in its infancy, but a 2017 study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization found that only half of the pharmaceutical compounds were removed in the water treatment process. It noted that evidence suggests some of the chemicals could affect human reproductive systems, too, just as studies have shown on aquatic life.
“Modern wastewater treatment plants mostly reduce solids and bacteria by oxidizing the water. They were not designed to deal with complex chemical compounds,” said Birguy Lamizana-Diallo, program management officer at the United Nations Environment Program and an expert on wastewater treatment.
Officials in Montana are quick to point out differences between their plan and what happened in Arizona. For one, the ski area near Flagstaff often makes all its snow from treated wastewater, whereas the Yellowstone Club will use it, at least initially, on only about 10% of the 2,700 acres of skiable terrain and usually only in October and November to create a base layer for its ski runs. Come December, most of the snow people would be skiing and riding on would be natural.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two projects is the level of support the Yellowstone Club has for its plan, which is backed by environmental and conservation groups including the Gallatin River Task Force, the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators and Trout Unlimited.
The idea to turn Big Sky’s wastewater into snow has been brewing for more than a decade and emerged from a collaboration between the Yellowstone Club and other local groups concerned about depleted snowpack due to climate change, which could starve area creeks and streams of water later in the season.
Yellowstone already uses treated wastewater to hydrate its golf courses, and in 2011 it teamed up with the Montana DEQ and the Gallatin River Task Force to see if they could safely turn the same water into snow. Chandler, the club’s environmental manager, said they successfully turned a half-million gallons of wastewater into 2 acres of snow about 18 inches deep.
Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, said the snowmaking process effectively re-treats the wastewater by blasting it out of a filtered snowmaking gun that atomizes the water.
“It’s an added layer of security for the human health side of things,” Chandler said.
Chandler said the information gathered from the pilot study forms the core of the ski club’s application with the Montana DEQ. A draft permit tentatively approving the project has been issued by the state agency, and a final decision is expected later this year.
Officials at DEQ said that the wastewater used to make snow will be treated to the highest standards possible and that they can issue permits only to projects that will not pollute state waters. But the effect of pharmaceuticals remains uncharted territory. Amy Steinmetz, public water supply bureau chief, said that neither the DEQ nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has standards to specifically treat wastewater for pharmaceuticals.
“The science is still emerging on that,” she said.
If the DEQ does issue its final permit this year, the Yellowstone Club will most likely begin turning wastewater into snow in late 2022. It would then be required to post signage advising skiers not to consume the snow. Similar signage can be found at Arizona Snowbowl.
Chandler said that the Yellowstone Club is proud of the collaborative work and that, ultimately, the process will benefit the community and watershed. Making more snow and increasing the snowpack during the winter, Chandler estimates, will increase the summer runoff in area creeks by about 19 days, a big win in the increasingly arid West. It’s also better than the alternative, he said: treating the wastewater and then just pushing it directly into the Gallatin River.
“It’s not like the Earth is producing more water, so we have to use what we have effectively,” he said.