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MT STANDARD GUEST VIEW: Montana’s waters are under threat

Northern Plains member and Gardiner fly-fishing guide and business owner, Richard Parks.

Montana’s waterways are under threat. State officials are poised to dramatically weaken protections against sewage, industrial waste, and other dangerous nutrient pollution that could wreck our rivers, streams, and creeks unless we take action. These nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus, and too much of them can result in the beautiful rivers we float and paddle becoming choked with weeds and algae. This pollution can turn livestock watering holes into lagoons of pond scum. It can threaten our drinking water. And, as a fishing outfitter, I worry a great deal about whether my essential business partners will be able to survive these degraded waters. These partners are the fish of Montana who live in our rivers and lakes, and without whom, I have no business.

It’s not just my business (and my business partners) that are threatened by this dangerous proposal. Clean water is essential to Montana’s biggest economic drivers – agriculture and outdoor recreation – which provide state revenue and the customer base for countless other businesses small and large. Perhaps more important than dollars and cents, however, is the realization that clean water, along with clean air and unspoiled landscapes, are essential to our very identity as the Last Best Place. No one wins if we choose to paddle down this dark, murky tributary of lax water pollution safeguards. And what a backwards drift it would be.

Prior to this proposed rollback, Montana was a leader in water quality protections. Several years ago, we adopted responsible, science-based numeric standards for nutrients in our water. “Numeric standards” means exactly what it sounds like. Specific numbers are designated for specific pollutants, and if our waterways hit a particular metric of a pollutant, corrective action must be taken by polluters in a reasonable and prudent manner. This proactive approach is how we have protected the health of Montanans, the health of our wildlife, and the health of our waterways.

During the 2021 legislative session, however, lawmakers decided to give polluters a gift by eliminating these responsible protections. The bill, SB 358, was widely condemned by everyday Montanans with only lobbyists from polluting interests speaking in favor of this backslide. SB 358 mandated that science-based numeric standards be replaced with narrative standards.

“Narrative standards” are also a lot like their name implies. In essence, they ask, “What’s the story with this waterway?” What pollutants are being dumped in this river section and by whom? What might go wrong? How does this area look? Do we see algae forming from the sewage being dumped upstream? Not yet? Well, no need to take action now…

These narrative standards are extremely subjective, open to interpretation, and very hard to enforce. For the most part, they only require action once the damage is already done. If this irresponsible plan is adopted, Montana’s water quality will be severely degraded, the only question is just how bad. This will end up being every lawyer’s dream, and everybody else’s, (including the discharger’s) nightmare.

Right now, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is undergoing a rule making process to design these weaker narrative standards. It is not going well. It turns out that trying to figure out how to craft an agreed upon narrative framework – an interpretative story – for every river, stream, lake, and creek in Montana, without using scientific metrics, is virtually impossible. Frankly, DEQ is floundering during this process and seems content to simply let polluters write their own rules.

Currently, a public comment period is open. DEQ needs to hear from everyday Montanans, those of us who enjoy fishing, floating, and paddling our rivers and who appreciate knowing we have safe drinking water.

To send DEQ a comment letting them know we don’t want our lakes, streams, and rivers choked with algae, weeds, and other sewage-based pollution, visit NorthernPlains.org/Protect-Our-Waterways.

Our farmers and ranchers who depend on clean water will appreciate this. Angling guides like me will appreciate this. And my business partners, the fish of Montana, will appreciate it more than anyone.

Richard Parks is a fishing outfitter and sporting goods store owner in Gardiner and a member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture organization.

This column was originally published in the Montana Standard on Jan. 31, 2022