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Montana is changing how it monitors water quality, and some environmentalists are concerned

 Pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus can cause excessive algae growth in water.
Borislav/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus can cause excessive algae growth in water.

Montana is in the process of changing the way it regulates certain nutrients that, if they’re not kept in check, can harm water quality in the state’s rivers and lakes.

This shift away from numeric standards essentially means the state will gauge the health of bodies of water by narrative, or visual standards, along with other factors, including potentially a range of nutrient concentrations in number form. But numeric criteria will no longer be a hard line facilities are held to.

Facilities like sewage treatment plants or power plants release nutrients into water bodies through wastewater. Pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus can cause excessive algae growth that deprives the habitats of fish and other aquatic animals of oxygen and creates an eyesore and health hazard for people that use the water, like fishermen and boaters.

A state report from 2020 found that 35% of river miles and 22% of lake acres it examined were impaired by nutrient pollution.

Guy Alsentzer, executive director of advocacy group Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, says the status of nutrients in Montana waterways “tells a story that this is an urgent problem.”

In 2016 Montana became one of the first states to adopt numeric standards for certain river systems. Now, under a law passed in the last legislative session, it’s become the first to repeal them.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the state from making the shift.

Opponents of the numeric standards say they were prohibitively expensive and technologically difficult to meet. Proponents say they’re the most effective approach to preventing nutrient pollution.

“Numbers are clear, and they’re not subjective,” said Alsentzer. “And it means it’s really easy to tell if you’re over or under the limit.”

"Numbers are clear, and they’re not subjective."

Nutrient pollution is one of the most common sources of water degradation nationwide, according to the EPA. The federal agency has been encouraging states to transition to guidance based on nutrient concentration for years, and nearly half of states have adopted some level of numeric criteria.

Even when numeric standards were Montana law, city water treatment centers could obtain exemptions designed to give facilities time to comply if they faced financial and technological challenges in meeting the number-based standards.

Kelly Lynch with the Montana League of Cities and Towns said complying with number-based standards wasn’t a viable option for a number of their member communities. She’s one of the stakeholders advising regulators on nutrient standards.

“We’re trying to come up with an approach that allows us to achieve the same end results in the water," she told a recent meeting of stakeholders advising regulators on nutrient standards, "but in a way that acknowledges that there are other actions that can be taken that are a lot cheaper that might help show almost immediate improvements in water quality in some of these watersheds."

Tom Bansak, associate director at the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station, vouches for standards based on numbers but acknowledges protecting water quality is expensive.

"Many times, states and the feds don’t have the finances or the political will to do what we scientifically know is the right thing for our water bodies," he said.

"There are other factors that go into whether or not you’re going to see an algae bloom from increases in nutrients."

State water quality administrator Amy Steinmetz says narrative standards are based on the same science as numeric standards, and can be beneficial to regulating nutrients because high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus alone don’t necessarily lead to algae growth.

“That’s because there are so many factors that go into the expression, if you will, of a nutrient into an algae bloom,” said Steinmetz. “So, there’s temperature, there’s water flow, there are other factors that go into whether or not you’re going to see an algae bloom from increases in nutrients.”

Montana environmental regulators have until October to adopt new rules.

Editor’s note Feb 24: This story has been corrected and elaborated to clarify that regulators have the option to use some numbers to help guide nutrient standards while writing new rules.

Copyright 2022 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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