Dirty Water Bills Progress Through the Legislature

Bills Create More Problems Than Solutions; Ignore Water Quantity and Quality Issues Plaguing State’s Water Resources

Recent reporting by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle highlights several concerning water bills that have made it through 2023 Montana Legislative Session transmittal, yet fail to address the most pressing issues facing our waterways. 

  • SB 240 creates additional exemptions for DEQ’s subdivision review process. This bill would exempt the department from having to review any subdivision with 14 or fewer lots that are located at least two miles from “high quality waters.” Doing so, however, lacks any scientific support. Sanctioning unbridled pollution discharges into groundwater that may provide drinking water supplies, and which likely feeds downstream surface water, creates potentially significant degradation. Moreover, this bill would unlawfully tie DEQ’s hands in terms of performing the necessary evaluation of polluting activities potential cumulative impacts as emphasized in the recent court ruling UMW v. DEQ.
  • SB 285 represents another attempt to prioritize development over clean water by creating more exemptions for residential and commercial development without considering the impacts on local water resources. Among other items, this bill would exempt entire categories of sewage disposal from otherwise mandatory pollution control review and permitting. 
  • HB 642 would revise exempt well laws to allow for expanded use of the already problematic exempt well usage for sprawling subdivision development. As introduced, the bill increases the exemption so much that municipalities, large scale industrial, and large scale commercial users will be able to pump significant amounts of water without any consideration to the harm it causes to existing water users, much less to local water quality.
  • HB 561 would move appeals of water pollution permits to the Montana Board of Environmental Review (BER), a politically appointed board with no expertise for dealing with errors of law and science. Currently permit appeals are handled in state court, but this bill would force any complaint to go to BER first, wasting time, state resources, and intentionally placing a chilling effect on citizen litigation.

The consequences of these bills on our water quality and quantity are very troubling. In Montana, more than 30% of assessed stream miles are polluted, and we have over 900 TMDLs for nutrient impaired waterways. Yet, the Legislature is moving forward bills that expedite development without looking at the cumulative impacts that increased sprawl development and, in turn, nutrient pollution, will have on our river basins. If enacted, these dirty water bills will detrimentally impact our water supply, clean water sources, local economies, and outdoor way of life in Montana.