Montana Voices: State’s clean water is vital, but federal budget cuts put it at risk

There’s a lot to love if you live in Big Sky Country. In a recent survey, 77 percent of Montanans ranked our state as the best place to live, outperforming all other states. If you’re an angler, you already know that Montana consistently ranks at the top of the list for American fly fishing destinations.

Our clean, clear, cold waters and protected landscapes draw millions of visitors who spend about $3 Billion here each year.

Sadly, Montana also ranks atop another albeit, less desirable, list. We are home to the largest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Superfund site in the country. The Upper Clark Fork River Superfund complex, stretching 120 miles from Butte to Missoula, was severely degraded by mining and smelting for more than 100 years. Only in the last 30 years has cleanup and restoration of this stream corridor shown any progress – due to its Superfund status.

Montana is heavily dependent on federal funding to address problems at our 17 Superfund sites. And beyond remediation of these sites, federal environmental grants support 39 percent of Montana’s environmental budget.

Closer to my home, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC) site on the Flathead River recently joined the National Priorities (Superfund) List. CFAC produced aluminum and toxic byproducts such as cyanide and fluoride, along with heavy metals, such as arsenic, chromium, lead, and selenium from 1955 to 2009. We still don’t yet know the lethal legacy of the plant and the full extent of its past and future impact on one of the cleanest rivers in the nation. An ongoing investigation of impacts to the river, soils and groundwater will cost an estimated $4 million and could take nearly five years to complete.

The Flathead River System is worth protecting. It’s home to some of the most endangered native trout populations in the country. Westslope cutthroat trout remain in only 5 percent of their historic range with the Flathead holding about half of the remaining genetically pure, interconnected populations. Native bull trout have declined in the Flathead from a population of tens of thousands a hundred years ago to fewer than 3,000 adult fish today.

Montana is able to address many of the toxic legacies that have impacted our highly-valued streams because of things like the establishment of the EPA in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Superfund law in 1980. Montana is not a wealthy state and without help from EPA, many of these cancerous sites would go untreated far into the future. But this month, Congress is debating a federal spending bill that would make disastrous cuts to the EPA budget that would make it harder for the agency to enforce laws and carry out its mission.

President Trump proposed a budget that would cut EPA funding by 31 percent and lay off 15,000 employees, 3,000 in Montana alone. It includes a 36 percent budget cut for the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources program which funds research to help protect threatened waters and fisheries. Funding for these programs would disappear under the president’s proposed budget, and must be protected. These cuts will have disastrous impacts on our ability to partner on a national level to remediate and restore a long and sad history of environmental degradation in Montana and to protect from future impacts.

Montana’s natural resources have provided benefits across the nation so it’s only right that everyone shares in the cleanup. Now is not the time to drastically slash funding for the agency that protects the quality of our waters, the integrity of our aquatic resources and the economies they support.

Lucky Sultz is the Conservation Chair for the Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited.  He is currently retired from a career in hydrology with the Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey for 30 years, and he was the USGS office chief in Kalispell for 15 years.