We all interact with water every day. We drink it. We clean with it. In this COVID world, we compulsively wash our hands with it. We flock to reservoirs of it for solace, recreation, and daily doses of beauty. Water is essential to our survival, and we are very fortunate to live in a state with some of the cleanest waterbodies in the country.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I always heard horror stories about how pollution was destroying the Chesapeake Bay, and I assumed that was the case with waterbodies everywhere. After moving here, I was shocked by how clear Flathead Lake is, how I can see individual stones on the lakebed even where the water is fairly deep!

While it’s true that Montana’s water resources are relatively clean, it’s also true that these waterbodies are facing new and increasing threats as populations continue to grow and more people come to visit. Drawn to the natural beauty Montana has to offer, people flock here and unintentionally place increased stress on natural resources as a result.

One of the growing threats is nonpoint source pollution, which is pollution that comes from many different sources rather than from a single source. This pollution can come in the form of nutrients from agricultural activities, septic systems, or residential landscaping; oil and grease from leaky cars or spills; sediment from construction sites; de-icing agents like road salts; and litter. And that’s just to name a few!

These pollutants accumulate on the roads, sidewalks, lawns, and fields in our watershed during everyday human activities, like forgetting to pick up after your pet or spilling a bit of oil on the driveway while doing maintenance on your car. When it rains, that oil and the bacteria from the pet waste are picked up by the water (which we call “stormwater”) and moved through a system of underground pipes toward a local waterbody.

Here in Montana, most stormwater is not treated prior to entering our streams and lakes. Once enough of these pollutants get into a waterbody, they can cause harm in numerous ways. For example, excess nutrients, which are plant food, can cause algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic creatures.

Because nonpoint source pollution comes from many sources all across the landscape, it is extremely difficult to regulate. In most areas, there’s no single entity that we can point to and require by law to stop polluting because we don’t know who is specifically responsible for that pollution. And it’s more likely that lots of people and businesses are contributing pollutants. Because of this, reducing nonpoint source pollution requires voluntary action on behalf of all residents, businesses, conservation groups, and local governments within a watershed.

In the Flathead Watershed where I am, conservation groups and government agencies are already taking action. The Flathead Basin Commission, a non-regulatory legislatively-created organization, teamed up with the City of Kalispell to launch a project that’s focused on increasing our knowledge of stormwater in the watershed in order to understand what practices would most benefit local water quality.

This project involved citizen science events to map stormwater systems, like the one held last August in Polson, and creating a model to identify areas that are most likely contributing the most nonpoint source pollution to Flathead Lake. Additionally, the above organizations and the Flathead Conservation District partnered to create the Flathead Rain Garden Initiative, which empowers residents of Flathead County to take action to stop stormwater pollution by helping them to build rain gardens on their property.

These are just a few examples of the work environmental groups are doing to address the issue of nonpoint source pollution, and while they are necessary, they’re not enough to fix the problem on their own. Reducing nonpoint source pollution requires all residents within a watershed to take action. Here are a few things you can do to help minimize nonpoint source pollution in your watershed:

  • Collect and compost (or throw away) your yard waste
  • Promptly clean up and properly dispose of pet waste
  • Wash your car at a commercial carwash rather than in your driveway
  • Repair leaky vehicles as soon as possible
  • Take proper precautions when doing maintenance on your car to avoid spills
  • Avoid over-salting sidewalks and driveways
  • Follow instructions to properly apply pesticides/herbicides or avoid them if possible
  • Build a rain garden
  • Install a rain barrel
  • Cover bare soil with plants or mulch
  • Participate in a local river clean-up event
  • Never dump anything into a storm drain, and if you see someone else dumping, report it to your local public works department

We all have the power and the responsibility to protect our amazing Montana waters. Being mindful of what you leave on the landscape will help ensure that future generations and your downstream neighbors will get to enjoy the same clean waters that you do!

Emilie Henry is the Big Sky Watershed Corps Member with the City of Kalispell and the Flathead Basin Commission. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Now through April. Montana Legislature is in session. Get the awesome “How to be Involved Guide” from Montana Free Press. To follow efforts for clean energy, climate, conservation and sustainability, consider connecting with (and getting the low down and action alerts from):

· Montana Renewable Energy Association

· Montana Environmental Information Center

· Montana Conservation Voters

· Northern Plains Resource Council

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17.

Through April 22. Thursdays, 7pm. Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series. In 2020, this lecture series celebrated 50 years of Earth Day by focusing on Missoula’s sustainability efforts & featuring 60 speakers. In 2021 many of those speakers will return to give updates on how their programs have adapted to the crises we face. Check out this year’s schedule HERE. 2020 recordings are available HERE.

February 8 – March 29. Mondays 6 – 7:30 pm. My Grandmother’s Hands Practice Group. This invitation is for white identifying folks in Missoula or the surrounding areas to join an 8-week virtual community practice group to examine white-body supremacy and create a new type of lasting relationship rooted in racial justice and accountability. More info HERE.

February 13 - June 19 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

February 19 - 28. Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. This year, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is going virtual! Enjoy over 75 films, the DocShop filmmaker's forum, the Big Sky Pitch and special presentations through the festival's virtual cinema, Eventive. The virtual BSDFF will present new and exciting documentary films, live-streamed Q&As with filmmakers, and the character of Missoula that has defined this special event for 18 years. Purchase tickets and passes HERE.

February 24, 10-11:30am MST. Webinar - Climate Migrants: Protecting Immigrants from Adverse Impacts of Climate Change. How can international laws and agreements be leveraged to alleviate the disproportionate risks and harms migrants face from climate change and natural disasters? What are the opportunities and obstacles for climate migration policies and agreements? What should the core considerations be in the design of climate migration bilateral agreements? Join ELI and expert panelists to explore these questions and the opportunities and challenges to increase protections for climate migrants. Register HERE by February 22.

Wednesday, February 24, 5 - 6 pm. Climate Smart Missoula's Big Climate Change Event: 1 Year Later. Dr. Rob Davies, the featured presenter at our Big Event at the Wilma Theater (Feb 2020) will return to Missoula -- via Zoom -- to share his thoughts on what the last year means for climate action. Join us for this interactive conversation and Q&A Happy Hour. More information and to register HERE.

March 4, 4-5:30pm. How to Talk to Kids about Climate Change. How can we maintain hope and make a difference in the face of overwhelming evidence of the climate crisis? And, how do we even begin to talk with our kids about it? Help is at hand. Join Families for a Livable Climate, Moms Clean Air Force Montana, and Mountain Mamas for a discussion with Harriet Shugarman, aka “Climate Mama”, and author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.