When Shayla Woodhouse was offered a place on a Montana State University team researching innovative wastewater treatment methods, part of the deal was that she’d have to ski.
Woodhouse, a California native who had skied only a handful of times, embraced the opportunity.
“It sounded awesome, skiing to collect samples,” she said.
The skiing was necessary because of an MSU experiment located mid-mountain at Bridger Bowl. There, a portion of the wastewater produced by the ski resort’s base lodges is diverted to an artificial wetland system designed by MSU engineers to treat the water.
During the past two winters, at least once a week, Woodhouse pulled off to the side of the Moose Meadows run to visit the site. After shoveling any new snow off several manhole covers, she took water samples that have been used to fine-tune the system and research its effectiveness. The results could change how Bridger Bowl and others — including residential subdivisions and even small towns in Montana — treat wastewater.
“It’s a relatively simple system when you look at it,” said Woodhouse, who is pursuing her master’s degree in environmental engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering. “We’re basically just putting wastewater on plants. But there’s so much more that goes on.”
The system, called a vertical flow treatment wetland, consists of two trenches roughly 16 feet by 32 feet. Each contains a rubber liner overlaid by drainage pipe and about 3 feet of gravel and sand in which sedges and rushes grow.
“These constructed wetlands are mimicking what would happen in a natural wetland,” Woodhouse said. “We’re applying that science to these man-made systems.”
The roots of the marsh-loving plants host microbes that break down the ammonia, organic carbon and other components of the wastewater, which is methodically pumped…