Legislative Session Update

Montana’s biannual Legislative Session is fully underway and we’re seeing an unprecedented volume of bills, many of which aim to undermine important environmental and public health protections.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is a non-partisan 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization that does not lobby. However, we have a direct interest and stake in how environmental rules are implemented, not the least because we end up seeing – and needing to oppose – bad projects that would unnecessarily risk fishable, swimmable, drinkable water and health river. Indeed, because much of our work involves fighting projects that would do harm to our waterways, and on advocating for strong new rules that would provide critical progress in the future, we birddog the biannual legislature and offer testimony to help inform reasoned decisionmaking.

Here are the bills we’re tracking and are concerned will harm local waterways and communities.

  • SB 174 would severely curtail local government’s ability to condition new development based on environmental considerations. It would limit local conditions to those imposed by an HOA or covenants, ignoring any impacts on adjacent property or downstream impacts on water quantity or quality. It also would change the burden of proof on decisions affecting agricultural lands, and remove the ability to condition projects based on effects on agricultural or water uses. Local officials should retain the authority to make independent findings and impose reasonable conditions and mitigations on any project that would affect public health, safety, welfare, or the environment.
  • SB 165 would wholly remove sanitation review for subdivisions that are more than 500′ from a surface water, similarly removes any stormwater pollution review for minor subdivisions (those < 20 ac), and at the latest edition, proposes to expand other exemptions for stormwater, wastewater, and solid waste disposal. This bill is totally lacking in science and would open up the proverbial can of worms by unnaturally restricting meaningful environmental review, foisting long-term costs on the public, and incentivize sprawl development and projects that are likely to degrade our outdoors heritage and waterways.
  • SB 164 is another dirty water bill that would significantly weaken nitrate pollution control limits for wastewater systems across sectors. Nitrates, one of the most pervasive pollutants in Montana, is linked to human wastewater disposal practices and is responsible for causing or contributing to many severe algal blooms across the State each summer. This bill would allow circa 1980, remedial treatment that walks Montana backwards in protecting our water resources when there is cost-effective, proven technology available today to better protect local rivers and streams. This bill is a pure and simple exemption for developers and will do nothing good for our communities and waterways.
  • SB 161 proposes a new expedited approval process for subdivisions, avoiding many key environmental and public service reviews. Specifically, the bill would exempt subdivisions from the preparation of an environmental assessment or analysis of agriculture, wildlife, and local services impacts, thereby kneecapping local government’s ability to understand a project’s true impacts and deny or mitigate those impacts. It also requires an incredibly quick month+ timetable and limits the availability of public hearings, chilling the likelihood of both informed analysis by local planners or meaningful public participation in local government.
  • SB 136 would strike the term “legally available” and replace it with “water rights” in the statute governing the Montana Department of Natural Resources’ (DNRC) evaluation of applications for new water rights permits. This change is significant, as it would require the DNRC to consider only the “water right demands” on a body of water, and prohibit the DNRC from considering other demands such as in-stream flow to maintain stream health and water quality. Montana needs to revise its water rights laws to improve instream flows and build resiliency in the face of climate change, not limit our ability to address real challenges!
  • LC1759 hasn’t made it too far into committees or hearings, but is very concerning as it would impose draconian penalties (tens of thousands of dollars and decades in jail) on anyone who harms or even impedes the operation of “critical infrastructure.” They would also impose an incredibly broad “conspirator” clause allowing any organization – including a non-profit – that supports activist causes through monetary donations, print or electronic media, etc to be held criminally liable. These so-called “critical infrastructure” bills are circulating in a number of states and are really anti-protest bills designed at limiting the public’s ability to protest, especially in response to the national protests opposing the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines and other dirty fossil fuel infrastructure. This bill likely violates the Montana and United States’ Constitutions and our rights to free speech and assembly.

Interested in looking up these bills or researching what else the Legislature is considering? Click here to go to the Montana Legislature’s bill tracker. Either type in the bill number or use the subject matter to search.

We encourage you to send an email to your local representatives and senators on any bill that concerns you. Remember – your voice matters!