Why a Waterkeeper in Montana?

Recently we’ve been asked an important question: why does Southwest and West-Central Montana need a Waterkeeper?

We work throughout the Upper Missouri River Basin of Southwest and West-Central Montana

While we have a quick answer – Montanan’s have a right to clean water, and that right needs to be protected – we also think certain facts and a practical explanation may provide critical understanding as to the need for Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

The Foundation: a right to clean water

Our federal Clean Water Act was enacted more than 40 years ago to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” Toward this end, the Act requires states like Montana to establish water quality standards protective of public health and the environment and considering aquatic wildlife and human consumption and recreation, among other uses; the act also requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to maintain and improve water quality by assisting and overseeing states’ efforts, among other responsibilities.

Yet only roughly 25% of the nation’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries have been assessed for pollution, and these for, in most cases, only the most rudimentary contaminants. Even more troubling, as of August 2013, EPA’s assessment of national water quality reported that more than half the nation’s assessed waters do not meet these standards or their designated uses, such as fishing, swimming, or drinking.

For example, the assessment identified more than 12 million acres of lakes (or 67 percent of total assessed lake acres nationwide) and more than 500,000 miles of rivers (or 53 percent of assessed river miles nationwide) as impaired; in all, the report shows, more water bodies that have been assessed are not meeting water quality standards than at any time in the past.

Improving Pollution Controls and Clean-Up Progress

So we know, based on national data, that clean water progress is challenging. So what about cases where states are trying to clean-up water pollution. Well, a recent report (2013) from the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyzed, nationwide, efforts to improve water quality by states. The results are startling and perhaps a key puzzle piece to answer the question of why Upper Missouri Waterkeeper exists in Southwest and West-Central Montana.

The 2013 GAO Report found that at current rates of progress and funding for waterways with a pollution diet (AKA a TMDL or Total Maximum Daily Load) it will take about 1,000 years for the federal Clean Water Act’s goals of fishable, swimmable, drinkable water to be realized! Key factors influencing the failure of our regulatory programs to make substantive, positive changes and improve water quality include lack of funding, a lack of political will to enforce clean water protections, and wide-spread reliance on non-binding, voluntary measures without timeframes.

These findings are of critical importance for Montana. Here we see many of the same problems the GAO report found nationwide: our agencies aren’t fully surveying all our waterways’ health, are failing to require appropriately stringent permits for polluting activities, and are failing to create meaningful, accountable or binding plans for water quality improvement.

Why does Montana have these water quality problems? We believe, like the GAO Report found, that the answer lies in the chicken soup of the real world: limited budgets, a lack of political will, failed or inefficient staff procedures, the dichotomy between traditional ways of doing things vs. innovative ways of doing things … the list goes on. More practically speaking, our agencies are failing us because we – the public – are failing to stand up for clean water.

This, friends, is a primary reason why Upper Missouri Waterkeeper exists – to shine light on Montana’s water pollution problems, to identify what’s not working and meaningful solutions, to ensure we actually implement do-able solutions and do so in a timely, accountable manner, and to help show everyday folks ways to be a part of the solution!

Southwest and West-Central Montana is growing in terms of population and, along with new families and businesses, our landscape uses and related impacts are evolving and increasing, respectively. Montana’s vibrant outdoor culture is predicated in large part on clean, readily available water. Indeed, failing to recognize and act upon the nexus between water quantity and quality threatens our critical outdoor economy. A recent Business for Montana’s Outdoors poll found that 70% of businesses say that Montana’s outdoor lifestyle is a key factor in deciding to locate or expand in our state. Clean, readily available water is likewise a key building block of our local outdoor economy!

These types of changes, together with the technical nature of clean water controls and the fact that our government isn’t doing its job to protect clean water, is a powerful story explaining the need for Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.

No other organization works exclusively on protecting and improving water quality and community health throughout the Upper Missouri River Basin. Likewise, very few Montana organizations are advocacy-focused, specifically on water quality: we not only create and use scientific findings about water quality, we advocate for needed changes based on that science and the law.

We are working to protect water every week, and stopping pollution in Southwest and West-Central Montana every day – click here to join us today as a member and help protect and improve your local water quality and community health!