Speak Up: Improve Montana’s Water Quality

Increasing pollution, including the growing threat posed by nutrient pollution related to unrelenting development pressure, continues to challenge Montana’s clean water and world-class rivers. Once every three years, the Montana Department of Environmental Protection (DEQ) conducts a comprehensive review of all water quality standards for the state. Water quality standards set out goal-posts for judging the health of waterways, contain rules aimed at controlling pollutant discharges, and include both narrative and numeric criteria that help define what’s healthy, and what’s degraded. This once-every-three-year review is called a Triennial Review, and it’s happening now.

Montana’s 2023 Triennial Review is an opportunity to make meaningful updates to our state’s standards, and how we protect our water resources from unnecessary degradation. Unfortunately, DEQ is not proposing any changes during this 2023 cycle, treating the process as an empty gesture towards meaningfully examining what’s working – and what’s not – when it comes to waterway health. 

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is taking the opportunity presented by the 2023 Triennial Review to advocate for needed improvements to Montana’s clean water rules. As we know, it’s critical to have strong, science-based rules that protect our waterways from pollution. Massive fisheries collapses, catastrophic climate change impacts, noxious algal blooms, and unrelenting development pressure demonstrate that our current rules aren’t up-to-snuff in terms of protecting our communities, our fisheries and wildlife, or our outdoors heritage, and we need to do a better job. 

We are raising concerns about the inadequacies of Montana’s current water quality standards – and we need you to raise your voice in support of several common-sense improvements.

Here are three main improvements we’re recommending to DEQ:

  1. Develop criteria that protect essential habitat for salmonid species. Despite our world-class fisheries and the collapse of several keynote populations, DEQ’s rules don’t include specific criteria or designations for identifying or protecting spawning grounds and similar essential habitat. Similarly, emerging science from the Pacific Northwest demonstrates that stormwater runoff from highways and streets contains  the emerging contaminant 6PPD-Q, an automotive chemical with acute toxicity for many trout species. DEQ should be proactive in studying this chemical and developing new criteria and rules to protect some of our most iconic aquatic wildlife.
  1. Develop water quality criteria for lakes and reservoirs to protect aquatic life, drinking water supplies, and recreation from pollution and degradation. Despite possessing a multitude of lakes and reservoirs that provide important recreational, irrigation and public water supply uses, Montana has not adopted site-specific criteria to protect these uses from degradation. Without tailored measuring sticks for judging harm, these important waterbodies are unnecessarily at-risk of ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ where upstream degradation slowly but surely degrades their quality, and impacts escape notice – or restoration – because of a lack of defined health standards. DEQ should finalize its long-standing internal work developing criteria for lakes and reservoirs to both protect these important waterbodies, and to begin necessary restoration work on those already suffering from too much pollution.  
  1. Update Montana’s Nondegradation Policy to account for best-available science. Nondegradation Policy is one of three ‘legs of the stool’ for Water Quality Standards. In theory, these rules should protect existing uses of water and the water quality necessary to support those uses. In reality, the rules allow numerous exemptions that “swallow the rule” and sanction increased cumulative pollution to waterways, contrary to conditions on the ground or evidence of existing pollution challenges. Similarly, Nondegradation Policy fails to account for best science showing that most groundwater receiving pollution discharges flows into (and thereby impacts) surface water quality. Standards for groundwater are lax compared to standards for surface water, despite the two resources being connected. In short, the existing rules contain loopholes and exemptions that are contrary to the Clean Water Act and fail to afford waterways essential protection from degradation, and should be revised to reflect best available science and comply with the CWA.

DEQ is accepting public comments through June 28, 2023. We encourage you to submit a comment to the agency, adding any personal touches on why clean water is important to you, and requesting that DEQ update its rules to reflect on-the-ground conditions and better protect our water from pollution. 

You can easily send a comment to the DEQ here now.

Comments can also be mailed to: 

DEQ Water Quality Division
Water Quality Planning Bureau
PO Box 200901
Helena, MT 59620

Or electronically to: deqwqtriennialreview@mt.gov.

DEQ is also hosting a public hearing on Wednesday, June 28, 2023 at 11:00 AM in the Metcalf Building, Room 111 (1520 E 6th Avenue, Helena, MT), or on Zoom (passcode: 412888).

If you have any questions regarding the Triennial Review or submitting comments, please email us at quincey@uppermissouriwaterkeeper.org.