Upper Missouri Waterkeeper Complaint Challenges DEQ’s Failure to Recognize and Address Prolific Development and Water Resource Impacts in Gallatin County
Upper Missouri Waterkeeper filed a complaint over the State of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)’s denial of a petition requesting the designation of Gallatin County as a stormwater pollution control authority. Designating Gallatin County as a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) – like Yellowstone County, Cascade County, and Missoula County – would provide a proven path for managing the water quality impacts caused by booming population pressure and sprawl development, from Big Sky to Four Corners to Belgrade.
“The Montana Water Quality Act and our state’s Public Trust Doctrine require a proactive framework for identifying high-growth regions and controlling the negative impacts of development on waterway health. Unfortunately, the Dept. of Environmental Quality is ignoring the need to prioritize the protection of clean water and healthy waterways in the fastest growing county in the region – Gallatin County,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “More than a dozen local waterways in Gallatin County, from the West Fork Gallatin in Big Sky to Bozeman Creek and the East Gallatin in the Valley – have been degraded by intensive and continuing development patterns for nearly a decade. It’s past time DEQ takes proactive steps to help local decisionmakers plan for future growth in a way that won’t pollute local water quality.”
Stormwater runoff, one of the nation’s fastest growing sources of pollution, threatens waterway health when rain or snow runs off from roads, commercial and industrial spaces, and residential developments, washing harmful pollutants like oil, grease, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and road salts untreated into local waterways. Polluted stormwater can contaminate drinking water sources and potentially trigger health problems, degrade aquatic and fisheries habitat, and negatively impact the countless businesses that depend on clean water and healthy river systems.
By denying Waterkeeper’s petition and choosing to needlessly sit on its hands, DEQ is failing decisionmakers, residents, and businesses in Gallatin County. A key positive outcome should Gallatin County be designated as an MS4 is parity between development standards between the City of Bozeman – which is already established as an MS4 authority – and high-growth regions near to or just outside the City’s boundaries. Leveling the playing field so that land use decisions in high-growth areas reflect a strong scientific foundation protecting local water resources, regardless of whether they are in a municipality or in the County, is not only smart planning, its also smart economics.
Underscoring the counterintuitive and unlawful failure of DEQ to proactively designate one of Montana’s fastest growing counties as a stormwater authority is the ongoing plight of already polluted streams, all of which are tributaries to the Gallatin River. Currently, 22 waterbody segments in the Lower Gallatin watershed and 7 waterways in the Upper Gallatin are impaired by harmful pollution, degrading their ability to support designated uses such as drinking, fishing, and agriculture. The primary pollution cause in nearly all impaired waterways in Gallatin County is human-made contributions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. An MS4 designation for Gallatin County would trigger the implementation of stormwater program and availability of key, proven water pollution control strategies such as low impact development and green infrastructure.
Waterkeeper’s petition to designate Gallatin County as an stormwater management entity was supported by a strong scientific record, including dozens of peer-reviewed studies correlating development patterns with negative stormwater pollution impacts in local creeks, streams, and wetlands. Waterkeeper also used state-of-the-art GIS modeling to examine how representative development in high-growth regions of the County are contributing hefty stormwater pollution loads to local streams, all of which cumulatively degrades local and regional water quality. Lastly, the petition used available social, economic, and preliminary 2020 Census data for Gallatin County to show how the county has already satisfied DEQ’s criteria for developing a new stormwater authority.
DEQ’s denial of Waterkeeper’s petition to designate Gallatin County as a stormwater management authority is a clear leadership failure. DEQ has a clear duty under state law to use best available science and take proactive steps to protect water quality. Denying good-faith, science-based efforts from the public interest sector aimed at helping local government put more ‘tools on the toolbelt’ for managing unprecedented population growth and protecting local water quality is not only bad policy and irresponsible, it is also unlawful.
The Dept. of Environmental Quality has a unique opportunity to assist local government in getting ahead of the curve on infrastructure and planning investments given the once-in-a-generation ARPA funding from the federal government. Local county governments should support this common-sense, proven approach to protecting the county’s waterways, like Billings, Great Falls, and Missoula, have all done, to ensure a healthy future for Gallatin County.