The Past Affects Our Future

Montana is well known as “the last, best place” by virtue of its unique outdoors and quality of life. Yet several long-term and emerging environmental issues increasingly threaten watersheds of the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Southwestern Montana sits at the heart of Montana mining history, and the history of mining in the West. While gold was discovered in Montana in 1852, it wasn’t until ten years later that the precious metal was found in significant amounts at Grasshopper Creek in extreme southwestern Montana that resulted in a mining camp named Bannack. In fact, our state capitol, Helena, was the site of one of the richest gold strikes in U.S. History at Last Chance Gulch.

Although mining activities have decreased in recent years, numerous sites in mountainous areas throughout the Upper Missouri Basin have been degraded as a result of extracting natural resources.

The nexus between mining and water quality is the scientific truth that resource extraction creates unavoidable land use impacts which disturb natural ecological conditions. Further, hard rock mining, common in the Rockies, often results in huge volumes of toxic wastewater and drilling byproducts, items that require time-consuming, expensive clean-up and, even with proper procedures, can still contaminate nearby land and water.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper watchdogs new permits for natural resource development within Southwest & Westcentral Montana because of the inextricable pollution link between extractive industry and water quality.

Two other historic land uses, agriculture and ranching, are also time-honored traditions in Montana.

Much of the private land within the Missouri Headwaters and Missouri-Sun-Smith subbasins remain in agricultural production and are ranched seasonally. Many former mining and timber sites, and a good portion of current agricultural lands, are on or adjacent to Federal lands and affect water resources on and off those public lands.

The good news is that many agricultural operators and ranchers are doing their part in keeping our waterways clean: fencing out cattle, practicing good manure management, utilizing riparian buffers… The bad news is that there are still many operators who don’t use or follow good land use practices.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper believes that ranchers and farms are vital parts of Southwest and West-central Montana’s economy and culture.  We support responsible operations who do their fair share in being good stewards of the land, and particularly support local, sustainable, agriculture and ranching that minimizes impacts to landscapes and waterways and strengthens local food systems.

Modern Pollution

Today, the population of southwestern Montana is increasing rapidly, dramatically surpassing the original design of this region’s first population centers. Some of the population boom is occurring in primary cities—such as Bozeman and Helena—but much of the increase is occurring outside of established cities and towns in areas such as the Gallatin, Bitterroot, and Helena Valleys of the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Population increases in cities have created additional demands on public water supplies and infrastructure, affecting the quantity and quality of surface water and, indirectly, the integrity of our landscapes. Population increases in suburban and rural settings have also created additional demands on groundwater, as well as caused the emerging issue of septic system pollution.

Below are some of the pollution concerns we work upon:

  • Agricultural practices, resulting in saline seep, erosion, sediment and nutrient-rich runoff.
  • Contamination at hard rock mining operations from disposed tailings, cyanide heap leach facilities, and spills and leaks. Fluids from these sources may contain cyanide, heavy metals, inorganic chemicals, and very acidic water.
  • Geology and natural substances. Ground water that migrates through rock formations can dissolve some minerals present in the rocks. The ground water near mineral deposits in southwestern mining districts often contains heavy metals.
  • Improperly designed sewage disposal and septic systems, which can contaminate ground water with coliform and other bacteria, viruses, and nutrients.
  • Increased conversion of agricultural land to residential subdivisions decreases or ends groundwater recharge from irrigation, increases sedimentation of waterways, and has altered the groundwater flow system in many areas.
  • Injection wells and runoff from storm drains, which add organic contaminants to ground water. About 900 oil field injection wells and thousands of shallow injection wells (like those in car washes and auto shops) exist in Montana.
  • Leaching of contaminants from solid waste landfills and hazardous waste storage and disposal sites. About 32 active Class II municipal solid waste landfills accept mixed wastes, including certain household hazardous wastes; 50 Class III landfills accept non-water soluble items such as tires, brush, and brick; and 12 privately-operated Treatment, Storage, and Disposal (TSDs) facilities handle hazardous waste. Substances that can pollute ground water at all of these landfill sites include metals, solvents, refrigerants, and petroleum derivatives.
  • Management of public lands to minimize erosion and sedimentation to high quality waterways. With approximately 1/3 of the Basin, including many headwaters, managed by agencies, continued engagement with the USFS, BLM and MT FWP is critical.
  • Petroleum spills and leaking underground storage tanks. About 22,500 underground storage tanks are registered with the State. A pinhole leak from just one of these tanks can spill 500 gallons of fuel each year. Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel can spill beneath major fueling facilities in both catastrophic and chronic leakage circumstances.
  • Pollution from other industrial activities, generally covered by permits issued by the Dept. of Environmental Quality, can be improperly designed or worse, not followed by the permittee.
  • Sludges from petroleum refining, creosote and solvents from wood treatment, and pesticides from agricultural and domestic insect control can dramatically affect surface water quality.