Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Pesticides pollute lakes and streams across the nation, but no one knows how much pesticides affect Montana’s rivers. With the help of a federal grant, researchers intend to find out.

A few weeks ago, the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station received a $6.6 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Columbia River Basin Restoration Program to develop and coordinate a collaborative Pesticide Stewardship Partnership Program for the Upper Columbia River Basin of Montana. The main river systems include the Clark Fork, Flathead and Kootenai rivers running through 12 western Montana counties.

“The reason we’re doing this is there’s no baseline monitoring of pesticides in surface waters in Montana, so we don’t even know how bad the problem is,” said UM assistant professor Rachel Malison, who will oversee the program. “Pesticides have a lot of negative impacts, and from my ecological perspective, we don’t know how much aquatic diversity we might be losing already. So first, we need data.”

Using the five-year grant, Malison and her team will develop a plan of where to monitor throughout the Columbia River basin and how often. To do the sampling work, they’ll rely on volunteers from conservation districts, waterkeeper groups and concerned citizens, just like their Monitoring Montana Waters program does.

Then, using the baseline data and input from other partners, they’ll target some places for reductions in pesticide use and monitor the results. The goal would be to document declines in pesticide pollution, Malison said.

However that’s just one prong of the Stewardship Partnership Program. The University of Montana is the lead institution of the grant but there are seven sub-award partners who will be carrying out other projects that address various EPA priorities, such as green infrastructure and agricultural best-practices.

For example, the city of Missoula is one of the sub-award partners that will address green infrastructure by creating urban wetland areas that will receive city stormwater and filter it naturally before it ends up in the Clark Fork River.

In addition to monitoring efforts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will up its collection of pesticide waste such as spent containers so the waste doesn’t end up in the landfill or forgotten in outbuildings.

Education is always necessary for change, so the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is developing an initiative to encourage people to build native-plant buffers between lawns and streams, so if they insist on using pesticides, there’s less of a chance of it draining directly into streams.

Oregon already has a successful pesticide stewardship program so Malison used its program as a framework but then customized it to Montana’s needs. For example, the Oregon program doesn’t directly investigate effects on fish. But in Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho will be collecting fish and analyzing the tissue for pesticides to see how it affects both fish and human health.

“We hope the program will be able to spread into the rest of the state, but this funding is specific to the Columbia basin,” Malison said. “We’re hoping that people will be happy to engage and work with us. It’s not a regulatory program, it’s not anti-farming. We want to work together because we can’t solve the problem on our own.”

Some studies have already identified pesticide use to be a growing problem. A 2018 report from the U.S. Geological Survey found the year-round presence of neonicotinoids or neonics in the Great Lakes. The concentration and detections of neonics, which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms and pollinators, were found to increase in the tributaries of the Great Lakes during planting season. In 2015, another USGS report found that neonics contaminate over half of urban and agricultural streams across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

In addition to farmers and land agencies, homeowners use pesticides in their yards, so the use spreads as more people build in formerly unsettled areas. In 2021, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found pesticides and their remnants in 90% of streams in mostly urban water drainage basins across five regions, including California and the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest from Oregon to the Canadian border.

Some have opposed efforts to reduce or regulate pesticide use. Then in 2009, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that pesticides applied to waterways should be considered pollutants under federal law and regulated under the Clean Water Act.

However, Congress has repeatedly tried to reverse that. Most recently, in July, Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., introduced the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act to eliminate the requirement to get a permit before spraying pesticides on or near waterways, saying it placed a burden on farmers, even though agricultural activities are exempt.

In addition, the USGS used to maintain an online interactive map showing pesticide concentrations in streams across the nation and identifying which streams were likely to exceed water-quality guidelines for human health and aquatic life. The Pesticide Stewardship Program data would likely have been included.

However, the map was recently decommissioned. In the June issue of “Entomology Today,” the Entomological Society of America bemoaned its loss, saying it left a gaping hole in essential public information, even though the program had suffered smaller cuts over the past few years.

“The reasons for the cutbacks are still not entirely clear. Funding constraints are an obvious hypothesis but do not seem to be the full explanation. Public records show that the raw data cost USGS no more than $150,000 per year at its height, a tiny fraction of the agency’s current $1.7 billion annual budget and a modest price tag for this invaluable information. Whatever the underlying reasons, these losses of pesticide usage data leave scientists and the public in the dark,” the article said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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