Defending Montana’s Headwaters

Headwaters and wetlands across Montana and the American West recently lost federal Clean Water Act protections under unscientific and politicized EPA rule rollbacks.  For the past 6 years, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper has been the only Montana river-protection organization standing up for the Missouri’s vital headwaters in federal court.

Since its first year in office, the Trump Administration made several moves to roll back Clean Water Act protections for a large number of intermittent and ephemeral headwater streams and upland and isolated wetlands. Doing so endangers public health and jeopardizes the future of Montana’s unique headwaters and the water we drink, swim, and fish in by allowing polluters to degrade and dump harmful chemicals into waters that are no longer protected.

These threatened waterways, known as intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands, make up the vast majority of our headwaters across Montana.  The EPA estimates that 54% of the Montana streams have no other stream flowing into them, and that 63% do not flow year-round: these waters are small-order tributaries that function like veins, contributing cumulatively large flows of cool, clean water to downstream mainstem rivers.  Under recent rollbacks these types of waterways aren’t protected from degradation and pollution, despite the fact that they sustain downstream rivers and water quality and in many cases provide key wildlife habitat.

EPA data also shows that approximately quarter-million Montanans receive some of their drinking water from areas containing these smaller-order stream systems, and that at least 12 of Montana’s largest polluters are located on such streams and currently have permits under the federal law regulating their pollution discharges. It is the height of irresponsibility to allow activities and actions that threaten Montanan’s drinking water supplies.  Despite the diverse number of threats confronting Montana’s headwaters – from climate change, to unsustainable water withdrawals, to development pressure – rule rollbacks mean polluters across Montana are increasingly exempt from taking responsibility to clean up their pollution and protect local water quality.

Currently, we’re engaged in a case pending in the Northern District of California, Waterkeeper Alliance et al v. U.S. Envtl Protection Agency, N.D. Cal. No 3:18-cv-02521. This case includes our original challenge to the 2015 Clean Water Rule (which used arbitrary exemptions to exclude important headwaters from protection), and we amended that case to encompass challenges to both the 2019 Rule Repealing the Clean Water Rule and the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule (wholesale political attacks that compromised the role of science in setting the scope of legal protections for headwaters).

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is committed to defending the scope of science-based legal protections for our waterways, not politically-drawn lines in the sand.  The health of Montana’s irreplaceable headwaters and prized fisheries, not to mention the countless outdoors-based businesses and outdoors heritage, directly depend on the strength and scope of the Clean Water Act.