State of Montana Determines Gallatin River ‘Impaired’ by Algal Blooms

Conservation Groups’ Petition Granted by Dept. of Environmental Quality 

On Tuesday, June 14, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) made a preliminary finding that the Gallatin River merits a Category 5 impairment designation under Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). 

The determination comes in response to a petition submitted by Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Gallatin River Task Force, Montana Trout Unlimited, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and American Rivers late March requesting the middle segment of the Gallatin River be deemed ‘impaired’ by nutrient pollution. Impacted local businesses, including Fins & Feathers of Bozeman, Montana Whitewater, and Gallatin River Guides, were also supportive of the petition.

“We’re pleased to see DEQ made the right decision, based on best available scientific evidence, to move forward with listing the middle Gallatin River as impaired,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “Our backyard waterway has been plagued by noxious algal blooms for four consecutive years, and an impairment designation provides the necessary tools and framework to address this problem. This is a win for Gallatin County, our world-class fishery, countless businesses, and everyone that values a healthy Gallatin River.”

DEQ’s determination, based on years of monitoring data and visual evidence collected by Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and Gallatin River Task Force, found that the Gallatin River is substantially affected by human-made nutrient pollution, and its designated uses (such as recreation and aquatic life) have not been attainable due to water quality degradation caused by excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

“It’s critical that we are all taking the appropriate steps and using the right tools to protect the Gallatin River, and this recent determination that the Upper Gallatin is impaired gives us the direction to do what is necessary now to improve the health of the river”, said Kristin Gardiner, Chief Science Officer for the Gallatin River Task Force. “DEQ’s decision will prompt the community to come together, and develop a comprehensive plan to address the excess levels of nutrients and nuisance algae blooms in the Gallatin based on years’ worth of data we have been collecting as we’ve monitored the river.” 

An impairment designation under the CWA will trigger the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the middle segment Gallatin River. A TMDL is a transparent, proven, and effective tool used to limit pollution, hold dischargers accountable, and restore the river’s health. The Gallatin’s known pollution problems will be addressed head-on and a reduction plan will be quantified to improve the water quality and aquatic habitat that has been negatively impacted for too long.

“We welcome the DEQ’s finding that the middle Gallatin River merits an impairment designation due to nutrient pollution,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies Director at American Rivers. “The first step in restoring the river to health is to admit there’s a problem. Once that problem is described in detail and quantified, we can come up with a plan to fix it.” 

“MTU applauds DEQ for making the right decision and giving the state additional tools to begin seriously addressing nutrient pollution problems in the Gallatin,” said David Brooks, Executive Director at Montana Trout Unlimited. “For everyone who values or depends on a clean and healthy Gallatin River, this is a win, especially for the fish and river itself.”

“The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is pleased with MT DEQ’s decision and is glad to see continued improvements made towards the health of the Gallatin watershed.” said Sierra Harris, Climate Change Coordinator at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Our river community is grateful for DEQ’s renewed efforts to reduce nutrient pollution and excessive algal blooms.”

DEQ will host a formal public comment period within a few business days. Strong public support for DEQ’s preliminary determination of listing the Gallatin River as a Category 5 impaired waterway will be key to ensuring the Gallatin is protected for generations to come. DEQ will make a final determination following the public comment period.