50 years after the Clean Water Act, more needs to be done to protect Montana’s waterways – Daily Montanan
The Clean Water Act turned 50 on October 18. Over the past five decades it has proven to be one of the most successful environmental laws on the books. It has cleaned up contaminated waterways, helped ensure the drinking water coming out of your tap is safe for your children, and protected the ecological integrity of rivers and streams.
Indeed, without the Clean Water Act, Montana would not be the state it is today. But much more needs to be done for us to achieve the promise of the Clean Water Act – which is to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution in our waters.
In arid Montana, water is our most important and limited natural resource. Every aspect of our lives is linked and dependent on access to clean and adequate water. Our tribes, communities and families depend on clean water for our environment, health, economy, spiritual well-being and recreation. Whether you’re a rancher in Miles City, a restaurant worker in Kalispell, a mom in Laurel, or an outfitter in Dillon, you need clean water every day. Clean water is also essential for land and water life, livestock, crops and ecosystems as a whole. With this in mind, you would think Montana’s leaders would value and prioritize the protection and enhancement of our water resources. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Our state government was granted the authority to implement the Clean Water Act by delegation from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. In principle, local management of our water resources through a responsible public body makes sense. In practice, the DEQ has been deprived of the resources necessary to fully implement even some of the most basic clean water protections, such as proper water quality monitoring, development of reduction plans pollution and sufficient (and legal) pollution discharge permits.
The Montana Legislature oversees funding and resources for the Montana DEQ. It also passes state laws necessary to implement the Clean Water Act. Instead of defending the values of fishable, swimmable and drinkable water, the legislature has instead worked to race to the bottom to meet the bare minimum of water quality standards under Clean Water. Act, and nothing more (and sometimes less). Over the past few decades, a myriad of bills have been introduced that would have weakened water protections and led to more pollution in our waters. Last year, the Legislature considered bills that would have allowed more selenium pollution in our water (failed in committee); weakened standards for nutrient pollution from industrial operations such as mining and municipal treatment plants, which suffocate aquatic life (enacted by Governor Gianforte); and allowed more subdivision pollution, which harms ground and surface water quality for everyone and everything downstream (Gianforte’s veto).
If the idea of weakening water quality protections were put to a vote by the people of Montana, it would fail overwhelmingly. But these legislative proposals often come at the behest of a few vested interests with dollars at stake who have an outsized influence on the process.
The economic benefits of clean water are undervalued. Numerous studies have shown the enormous economic benefits of preventing pollution and maintaining clean waterways, rather than managing pollution and attempting to clean up after the water has been irreparably polluted. Additionally, many of Montana’s major industries, including agriculture and tourism, require clean water. Clean water protection is simply the cost of doing business.
Whether you’re dipping your toes in the Yellowstone River, letting your cows dip their noses in the Milk River, or casting a fishing lure in Flathead Lake, the water has to be clean. The last thing Montana needs is to weaken existing water protections. Instead, we should have the foresight and wisdom to protect this resource for this generation and future generations. Let’s hope the Montana Legislature and Governor Gianforte recognize this important reality and set a new tone by prioritizing the protection of water quality, so that the next 50 years are a success for Montana’s water and everything that depends on it.
Derf Johnson is the Deputy Director of Montana Environmental Information Centera nonpartisan, nonprofit conservationist dedicated to ensuring clean air and water for future generations of Montana.