State of Montana’s Dept. of Environmental Quality Publishes First Water Quality Rollback Rule

 DEQ Failed to Address Concerns Raised by Conservation Groups and Montana Citizens

On Friday, March 11th, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) finalized New Rule 1 as proposed, the first of a two part rulemaking process to amend ARM 17.30.1304 and rollback Montana’s science-based numeric nutrient pollution criteria, as directed by the passage of Senate Bill 358 during the 2021 Legislative Session. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Northern Plains Resource Council are disappointed with DEQ’s finalized Rule 1 as it failed to incorporate and revise any technical or citizens’ concerns.

New Rule 1 concerns the broad rule framework for rolling back numeric nutrient criteria and replacing it with ambiguous narrative nutrient criteria and an Adaptive Management Planning mandate for nutrient pollution sources. New Rule 1 supplants a mandatory, proven framework for controlling point source discharges of nutrient pollution with an amorphous and subjective new construct that is unscientific, contrary to plain requirements of the Montana Water Quality Act and federal Clean Water Act and incapable of adequately protecting local waterway health. The rule definitions and framework inappropriately and unlawfully interject cost-benefit considerations, relax or repeal mandatory pollution control requirements, lack a demonstrated scientific basis, and fail to provide the transparency, accountability, or enforceability necessary to protect designated uses of water for present and future generations of Montanans.

“DEQ continued its pattern of ignoring legitimate deficiencies brought forward by Montana citizens regarding the rollback of Montana’s clean water protections. Instead of working to address major shortcomings that threaten our clean water resources, polluting special interests won the day at every Montanans’ expense,” said Quincey Johnson, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper Outreach Director. 

“In 2021, the Montana legislature passed a reckless law that gutted responsible, proven protections against water pollution in our streams, lakes, and rivers. Only polluting interests supported that radical legislation,” said Richard Parks, a spokesperson for Northern Plains Resource Council and Gardiner fly fishing business owner. “Hamstrung by this law, DEQ’s effort to comply with the terms set by the legislature leads only to violation of the Montana Constitution, declining water quality, and threats to Montana’s outdoor recreation and agricultural industries, public health, and our very identity as the Last Best Place.”

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Montana Trout Unlimited submitted technical comments to DEQ in early February opposing Rule 1 and calling DEQ out for its disingenuous, unlawful rulemaking process that neglects science and caters to polluting special interests while undermining Montana’s water resources. 

Montanans have a constitutional right to a ‘clean and healthful environment,’ yet our state agency responsible for being anticipatory and proactively protecting our water quality is actively backsliding. The conservation organizations will continue to advocate for science-based, lawful solutions in the Nutrient Working Group to ensure Montana DEQ complies with clean water law and prioritizes a ‘clean and healthful’ environment for all Montanans.