Conservation Groups Petition the State of Montana to Protect Gallatin River

Algal Blooms on the Gallatin Signal the Need for Pollution-Control Planning; Impairment Designation

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Gallatin River Task Force, Montana Trout Unlimited, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and American Rivers filed a petition with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requesting a Category 5 impaired waterway designation of the middle segment of the Gallatin River under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Recurrent noxious algal blooms on the Gallatin since 2018 indicate the river is impaired from excessive nutrient pollution, qualifying for a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits to reduce discharges, helping protect and restore the river’s health.

“The world-class Gallatin River is turning green due to excessive nutrients from booming development pressure, the cumulative impacts of poorly treated wastewater, and the effects of climate change, together creating a perfect storm for benthic algal growth impairing the river,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “Thankfully, the State of Montana has the tools through the Clean Water Act to protect rivers impaired by nutrients, like the Gallatin. Everyone can agree that the Gallatin River is too integral to our region, the County’s outdoor economy, water supplies, ranching and agriculture, and aquatic life to ignore.”

Recurring neon-green benthic algal blooms – like those spanning the Gallatin in 2018 and 2020 – degrade recreational experiences and negatively affect fish populations and aquatic communities by decreasing oxygen levels. Prolonged and widespread algal blooms have the potential to cause serious harm to the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Gallatin River if left unaddressed. 

“We have a responsibility to advocate for the health of the Gallatin River, and to build stewardship for the river, as an organization and a community. The Gallatin is a treasured resource that is a draw for locals and visitors alike; it is key to our community”, says Gallatin River Task Force CESO Kristin Gardner. “Our science indicates that additional nitrogen pollution in the river will continue to facilitate algae growth, and reducing nitrogen pollution to the river is critical if we want to protect the Gallatin for future generations.”

This petition arose as a result of DEQ’s decision to forgo the biennial Montana Water Quality Report and List of Impaired Waters (known as the Integrated Report) where impaired waterways like the middle Gallatin would have been identified. The CWA typically requires DEQ to assess Montana’s water quality and prepare a list of water bodies that do not meet water quality standards. Such waterbodies that fail to meet the criteria require a TMDL – a planning tool used to reduce pollution and improve water quality so as to meet the necessary standards to protect the health and designated uses of the waterway. Lack of capacity at DEQ has delayed the Integrated Report, thus the petition kickstarts the necessary TMDL process for the middle Gallatin’s known pollution problems.

“Montana DEQ has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars in 319 funding to reduce non-point source pollution in the Gallatin River over the next few years,” said David Brooks, Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “That investment in the Gallatin’s water quality and aquatic resources, like its renowned trout fishery, as well as all the other important uses of its water ought to be backed by an honest, legally required assessment of impairments. A TMDL is a basic, necessary tool that DEQ can provide to help fix the nutrient-driven algae problems degrading this prized river.”

Local businesses impacted by the pollution, including Fins & Feathers of Bozeman, Montana Whitewater, and Gallatin River Guides, are also supportive of the petition. Melanie West, Operations Manager of Montana Whitewater submitted a declaration letter that in part stated, “The middle segment Gallatin’s seasonal, widespread algal blooms are deeply concerning to me. When I or my staff take clients on the river, they are here in large part due to the highly pristine nature of the Gallatin and the clear, cool water and excellent recreational opportunities. They are looking for the ‘The River Runs Through It’ scenery, and a neon green algal bloom is not that pristine experience. Severe and pervasive algal blooms can degrade, if not destroy, a client’s experience and their likelihood to return to my business for another day on the river.”

“It’s high time for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to lean on science and acknowledge that year after year of algal blooms on the Gallatin River is clear indication of an impaired river segment that warrants immediate attention for the benefit of people, fish, and wildlife,” said Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s deputy director of conservation, Charles Wolf Drimal. 

Under DEQ’s rules and guidance, a waterway may qualify as “impaired” when there is “overwhelming evidence of impairment.” This criteria is met by documentation of filamentous algal growth covering the entire river bottom, from bank to bank, and extending continuously downstream for a substantial longitudinal distance (>150m).