50 years after the Clean Water Act, more must be done to protect Montana’s waterways

October 30, 2022 4:31 am

A view of the Yellowstone River looking north toward Laurel, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The Clean Water Act turned 50 on Oct. 18. During the past five decades, it has proven itself as one of the most successful environmental laws on the books. It has cleaned up contaminated waterways, helped to assure that the drinking water coming out of your tap is safe for your kids, and protected the ecological integrity of rivers and streams.

Indeed, without the Clean Water Act, Montana would not be the state it is today. But far more must be done in order for us to reach the promise of the Clean Water Act – which is to prevent, reduce, and eliminate pollution in our waters.

In arid Montana, water is our most important and most limiting natural resource. Every aspect of our lives is tethered to and dependent upon access to clean, adequate water. Our tribes, our communities, and our families are dependent upon clean water for our environment, health, economy, spiritual well-being, and recreation. Whether you’re a rancher in Miles City, a restaurant worker in Kalispell, a mother in Laurel, or an outfitter in Dillon – you need clean water every single day. Clean water is also essential for terrestrial and aquatic life, livestock, crops and ecosystems as a whole. With this in mind, one would think that Montana’s leaders would value and prioritize the protection and enhancement of our water resources. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. 

Our state government was granted the authority to implement the Clean Water Act through delegation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. In principle, the local stewardship of our water resources through an accountable state agency makes sense. In practice, the DEQ has been starved of the resources necessary to fully implement even some of the most basic clean water protections, such as adequate water quality monitoring, development of pollution reduction plans, and sufficient (and legal) pollution discharge permits. 

The Montana Legislature oversees the funding and resources of the Montana DEQ. It also passes the state laws necessary to implement the Clean Water Act. Instead of upholding the values of fishable, swimmable and drinkable water, the Legislature has instead endeavored on a race to the bottom in order to meet the bare minimum of water quality standards under the Clean Water Act, and nothing more (and sometimes less). For the past several decades,  myriad bills have been introduced that would have weakened water protections and resulted in more pollution in our waters. Just last year, the Legislature considered bills that would have allowed more selenium pollution in our water (failed in committee); weakened standards for nutrient pollution from industrial operations such as mining and municipal treatment plants, which choke out aquatic life (signed into law by Gov. Gianforte); and allowed more pollution from subdivisions, which harms ground and surface water quality for everyone and everything downgradient (vetoed by Gianforte). 

If the idea of weakening water quality protections were put up for a vote by Montanans, it would overwhelmingly fail. But these legislative proposals often come at the behest of a select few special interests with dollars at stake who have an outsized influence on the process. 

The economic benefits of clean water are undervalued. Numerous studies have shown the enormous economic benefits of pollution prevention and the maintenance of clean waterways, rather than pollution management and attempts to clean up after water has been irreparably polluted. What’s more, many of Montana’s top industries, including agriculture and tourism, require clean water. Protecting clean water is simply the cost of doing business. 

Whether you’re dipping your toes into the Yellowstone River, allowing your cows to dip their noses into the Milk River, or casting a fishing lure into Flathead Lake, the water needs to be clean. The last thing Montana needs is to weaken existing water protections. Instead, we should have the foresight and the wisdom to protect this resource for both this and future generations. Hopefully, the Montana Legislature and Governor Gianforte recognize this important reality and strike a new tone by prioritizing water quality protections, so that the next 50 years are a success for Montana’s water and everything that depends on it. 

Derf Johnson is the Deputy Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a non-partisan, non-profit environmental advocate dedicated to ensuring clean air and water for Montana’s future generations.

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