Legislation passed last year requires Montana to turn its back on water quality standards that are more effective at eliminating or controlling algae blooms. But a University of Montana professor is proposing a compromise to try to preserve Montana’s lakes and streams.
This week, the Legislative Water Policy Interim Committee heard that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality might have some trouble getting the Environmental Protection Agency to sign off on the state’s decision to pull back on water quality standards for nutrients.
Amy Steinmetz, DEQ water quality division administrator, said DEQ has been talking regularly with the EPA while a DEQ working group is trying to develop rules to change the current numeric standards to narrative ones for deciding whether water is polluted or not.
“We’re definitely communicating through this process, trying to figure out what EPA’s sticking points are. And they’re willing to listen and try to accept creative solutions within the bounds of the law,” Steinmetz said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about what they may be able to live with and what it is that they absolutely cannot live with.”
One of the EPA’s sticking points is likely related to the fact that narrative standards failed to improve water quality nationwide in the late 20th century, which led to nutrients becoming one of the top pollution problems. Finally, in 1998, with the situation worsening, the EPA found that the failure to use numeric criteria was one of the primary causes of nutrient over-enrichment problems.
Nutrients are chemical compounds that include either nitrogen or phosphorus, two elements that encourage plant growth. Nutrients exist in nature, where they tend to stay in balance. But a number of manmade products and byproducts can increase the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the environment to the point where things get out of balance. Human and animal waste are an increasing source of nitrogen while fertilizers, mine explosives and fracking chemicals include ammonium nitrate, a nitrogen compound.
Algae growth in lakes and streams can spread and sometimes explode into algae blooms, which can destroy other aquatic life and potentially endanger public health. Look at the bottom of the Clark Fork River flowing through Missoula in August, and you’ll see green mats of algae that didn’t exist a few decades ago.
Numbers are easy and effective to use. With numeric standards, any activity that causes nitrogen or phosphorus to exceed a set amount needs to be reduced. Narrative standards are more fuzzy and hard to get a handle on because they’re descriptive, said University of Montana professor emeritus Vicki Watson.
“(Thirty years ago) Montana’s water engineers said the incremental approach to addressing water quality problems is too costly,” Watson said. “We design a system to cut back on a pollutant some, and then it turns out not to be enough to fix the instream problem. So we have to go back to the drawing board and design a more powerful treatment system. And it costs too much to keep designing and building and then redesigning and re-building incrementally – give us the numeric target we need to hit so we can design for that from the start.”
In 2014, after years of studying nutrient conditions in several rivers, the state of Montana established numeric standards to preserve its treasured lakes and rivers, and the EPA approved the standards in 2015. Then last year, the Republican-led Legislature, at the behest of extractive industry and municipalities, passed Senate Bill 358 forcing the state to pull back. Groups like the Montana Petroleum Association and the Montana Mining Association lobbied for the bill and now sit on the working group.
That put DEQ in a difficult position, because although the state owns the water for the beneficial use of its people, the Clean Water Act requires that water quality be protected.
“Logistically, (the rule) has been very challenging to write,’ Steinmetz said. “One challenge is working to stay within the regulatory bounds of the federal Clean Water Act and the Montana’s Water Quality Act. We’re really trying to walk a fine line as we work through all of these challenges.”
During public comment Wednesday, Watson, who has done decades of water quality work, made a proposal that had a narrative aspect but still kept important numeric criteria.
She proposed to create two main groups of entities that discharge nutrients: those who can meet numeric targets and those who can’t due to cost or other difficulties. The second group would be broken into those who can negatively affect other water users and those who don’t. Those who don’t would only be required to monitor their discharge. For the others, a full adaptive management plan for the watershed would be required looking at all pollution sources.
“I’m hoping that the former numeric standards will be used as numeric criteria to set loading targets, and then we can look to see which dischargers can meet them,” Watson said. “In this way, we can make tackling this problem more manageable, by using good scientific information to focus first on the most problematic areas where management will be most cost effective.”
Sen. Jill Cohenaur, D-East Helena, urged DEQ to give Watson’s proposal some serious consideration. Otherwise Montana might lose control over its own water.
“I think that is incredibly concerning that we would be put in a position where the EPA would be dictating to the state of Montana what it is we are going to be doing,” Cohenaur said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.