HAMILTON — A popular program that’s been used across western Montana to remove pollutants from rivers and streams may be washed up.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s 319 Program was created in 1987 under the Clean Water Act to restore degraded waterways and improve water quality. It focuses on “non-point source pollution,” which generally means the contamination is caused by diffused sources, including agricultural runoff, septic systems that inadvertently flow into streams, or poorly constructed roads whose sediments cascade into streams.
“Some of the major problems identified in the Bitterroot are sediments and temperatures — those are our big concerns,” said Robert Ray, who manages the EPA program for Montana through the Department of Environmental Quality. “Nutrients are also a concern in most of the waters in the western part of the state as well.”
Since 1990, more than $4.3 billion has been invested nationally in the 319 program. But the amount of money earmarked for that program is dwindling, and President Donald Trump “zeroed out” the program for fiscal year 2018/19. However, the 319 program is being funded as part of the continuing resolutions by Congress.
Heather Barber, executive director of the Bitter Root Water Forum, said losing that funding would be problematic on a couple of levels. They’ve used “hundreds of thousands of dollars” through the 319 program, which has a matching grant component. They plan to use the 319 program to help a rancher fence and restore almost a mile of Miller Creek next fall.
In recent years, the program helped her group plant foliage and fence a half-mile stretch of the East Fork last summer, and work with the Bitterroot National Forest to remove 10 miles of abandoned and deteriorating roads that were crumbling into Sleeping Child and Rye creeks, delivering nine dump truck loads of sediment each year.
“These EPA dollars that are brought to local communities are invested in local contractors. We turn those dollars over to local nurseries for the plants we purchase. We use local consultants who hire locally,” Barber said. “Ending the funding would have a huge, significant, negative impact on us.”
Greg Dowdy is one of those contractors. He and his brother own Specialty Excavating, and Dowdy said about one-quarter of their work for the past four years came via the 319 program.
“It’s been pretty advantageous to our small company in Hamilton, Montana,” Dowdy said. “We have eight employees, and the funds flow through to them. We’ve done publicly and privately funded projects in Missoula, Western Montana — throughout Ravalli and Missoula counties.
“It lets us stay local, too. My guys don’t want to have to go work in North Dakota, and this helps keep us home.”
Jed Whiteley, a project manager with the Clark Fork Coalition, adds that most of the money is passed almost straight through to the contractors. Recent work included partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and others to enhance the habitat for bull trout in Lolo Creek.
“Of the $120,000 in 319 funds we got, we leveraged almost another $360,000 on top of that from all sorts of different sources,” Whiteley said. “We passed through a big chunk of that money to Greg. His company pays his guys, who buy gas, groceries and other stuff in town. It definitely has a ripple effect.”
Ray said that seven or eight years ago, the EPA was giving DEQ about $1.7 million annually for 319 projects. That’s down to about $900,000 this year.
“We still have needs that exceed the amount of money that’s available,” Ray said. “We really appreciate our partnerships with others to fix important problems in our streams and rivers.”
Barber adds that while they worry every year about the availability of federal funds for projects, the potential demise of the 319 program is particularly troubling.
“This has been the scariest threat that I have seen so far,” Barber said. “This program has done so much for the Bitterroot. We all know that all funding sources will not be around forever, but this has been used a lot in western Montana.”