Noxious Algae & Montana’s Clean Water

Noxious algae is in our lakes and rivers across Southwest and West-Central Montana. It also a fairly common problem this time of year.

A big algae bloom in August 2013 on the Big Hole River

Warm, still, stagnant water with too many nutrients almost inevitably results in big algae blooms. 

In turn, noxious algal growth harms local water quality and can threaten drinking water supplies and our prized trout fisheries!

There is a solution: make noxious algae less common. How do you do this? Enforce environmental laws.



Noxious algal growth is serious because it can deplete oxygen levels in our water and, where it intensifies, the toxins produced by the algae are dangerous if you eat infected fish or birds, touch or drink contaminated water.

The problem is becoming more and more common. How many of us have read the stories about Toledo and Lake Erie’s water woes this summer, examples of where algal blooms became so severe folks didn’t have clean water to drink!

Although the chain reaction causing noxious algal growth is natural, and Montana’s waters are still far cleaner than many back East, what causes the problem is made by people.

We are allowing too many nutrient into our waters from a variety of sources:

  • untreated sewage;
  • storm water loaded with fertilizers;
  • agricultural run-off and unsustainable grazing practices ripe with manure;
  • faulty or under-resourced septic systems; and
  • consumer products with high phosphorus content (like automatic dishwater soaps).

Similarly, we are depleting our rivers of water needed to sustain natural, healthy water quality. Water inefficiency in agriculture, unregulated subdivision groundwater withdrawals, and poorly managed dams on our rivers are part of the problem.

Further, our decision-makers have made too many cuts and roll-backs to our environmental laws and planning processes. We are building bad projects and allowing illegal activities to prosper without the proper science or enforcement resources to protect our water and our communities.

What should we do? Simple. We need to make noxious algae less common in Montana.

How do we do that? Also simple:

  1. Your politicians, community leaders and industry leaders need to be less cynical about environmental regulations and protections.
    These laws are not red tape. Environmental laws work because they protect your rights to safely swim, drink, and fish your water. Without their protections there are consequences. You lose the things you love most about living on, near, or using our water. The joy you get from swimming on a hot summer day can be lost in one hot week if you don’t keep pollutants out of the water.
  2. Your leaders need to respect your concerns and the concerns of your community at the grassroots. Your leaders need to respect concerned citizens and activists that ground-truth what is happening on our waters and witness the direct impacts of pollution on our communities. The problems are real and there needs to better response mechanisms to deal with pollution reports than the usual deny, diminish, deflect and applaud reaction of officials and politicians.
  3. Your public officials need to enforce our environmental protections. Your public officials need to mandate proper infrustructure for sewage and stormwater. They need to inform citizens about warnings and concerns. They need to educate citizens — you — about how to reduce nutrient run-off. They need to work with industry to reduce phosphorus in consumer soaps and products.
  4. You can also do your part to reduce the problem. Proper septic systems need to be built and inspected regularly. You can buy soap with less phosphorus, use less fertilizer on lawns and leave natural buffer zones between property and creeks and rivers to reduce run-off.
  5. You can support groups and community leaders. You need to support the informed and knowledgeable environmental groups and politicians who stand out and seek support to create and enforce our environmental protections.

Without protections, there are consequences. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is Southwest and West-Central Montana’s citizen advocate dedicated to making sure clean water is a reality for our communities, waterways and families.