Water is the lifeblood of Montana.
And when viewed from high above, Montana’s streams, rivers and lakes resembles a huge network of veins and arteries pumping life through the state. So how would you feel if your doctor told you 40 percent of your circulatory system was in danger of being damaged or clogged? That is the peril facing our waterways.
Montana has such an abundance of clean water we tend to take it for granted. But that wasn’t always the case. By the 1970s, many waters nationwide were grossly polluted, leading in 1972 to the Clean Water Act. This law, passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress, is administered by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Much progress has been made over the last 40 years, many streams are once again fishable and swimmable. Montana is not unscathed, fish in many of our streams and lakes are still under consumption advisories due to pollution.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 threw out criteria covering isolated wetlands and intermittent streams. Those account for 40 percent of the waters in Montana.
The Supreme Court encouraged EPA and the Army Corps to better define the waters covered by CWA. Sportsmen and women, Congress, industry and agriculture including the Farmers Union have all called for better criteria to protect these important waters and provide more certainty in permitting. After years of work and public input, the EPA and Corps have released a proposed “Waters of the U.S.” rule that would once again apply CWA to isolated wetlands and intermittent streams, while also clarifying exemptions from the law.
Besides providing wildlife habitat, pothole wetlands absorb floodwaters, reducing peak flood flows and releasing the water later to sustain summer stream flows. Wetlands often provide water treatment equivalent to tertiary pollution treatment plants to protect downstream drinking water. Intermittent streambeds also reduce spring floods, allowing water to seep into groundwater to help summer stream flows. The vegetation in the waterways slows the water and settles out sediments and pollutants. The small streams thus protected are important nurseries for spawning and rearing for many of the native and sport fish important to us.
I recently saw a letter to the editor that claimed the new criteria would apply to puddles after a rainstorm and would apply to all agricultural practices. That’s simply not true. Potholes and intermittent waterways are defined by vegetation that requires a year round supply of surface and/or ground water. And many farm practices are specifically excluded from CWA. The new criteria cover less waterways than were covered over the last 40 years.
Montana has always been a leader in protecting water quality. The Stream Protection Act (124 permit) was adopted in 1963, one of the first stream protection laws in the nation. That was followed by the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act (310 permit) in 1976.
As a fisheries biologist for nearly 40 years for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, I was part of those processes from nearly the beginning. Permit applications require a well-designed plan and as a result almost all applications are approved. Many times the review process would offer up some practical additions to improve the project. Illegal projects are another matter. I’ve seen intermittent waterways used to skid logs and in turn dump tons of sediment into streams below. Poorly designed mining in one drainage filled a downstream irrigation system with silt. The Clean Water Act ensures the water we all depend on is swimmable, fishable and drinkable.
You can find an excellent explanation of the proposed changes at EPA.gov/U.S. waters. Public comment is open until October 20.
The EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule is a practical definition of which waters are covered by the CWA, giving clarity and certainty to the public, farmers, ranchers and developers. Contact your congressman and the EPA and tell them to support this needed rule to protect the future of Montana’s clean water.