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State regulators pause water quality discussions amid conflicting opinions

Graphic: Montana news from Montana Public Radio

State lawmakers in 2021 directed Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality to change rules about nutrient pollution in waterways. Now, state environmental regulators have scrapped draft rules for new water quality standards.

Nutrients enter the water from things like sewer systems, city wastewater facilities and fertilizer runoff. An overabundance of nutrients can cause harmful algal blooms or fish die offs.

Last week, after no supporters backed the rules in a public hearing, DEQ announced it would pause its work. Lindsey Krywaruchka is the agency’s water quality administrator.

“We just felt like there was enough substantive comment that it was the right thing to do to take this pause,” Krywaruchka said. 

State law prevents agencies from passing rule changes after October before a legislative session. Krywaruchka says the agency will continue to review public feedback with its nutrient working group.

“That package won't go forward as it looked. There's going to be enough changes needed that something else will have to come out of this,” Krywaruchka said.

DEQ’s final rules must follow legislative intent and meet federal clean water regulations.

State law directed DEQ to move away from numerical standards, a limit for the amount of nutrients in the water, towards narrative standards, metrics of fish health or insect numbers to determine water quality.

Industry groups said the proposed standards were still too numerically focused, while environmental groups said any narrative standards would worsen pollution.

Guy Alsentzer is head of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, and a member of DEQ’s nutrient work group. He says he’s frustrated by this latest decision to delay new rules.

“The idea that we would undertake any further discussion of changing the goalposts to accommodate business interests and profit margins is wholly inappropriate. It's not scientifically defensible, and it's a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Alsentzer said.

Until new rules are created, Montana operates under 2014 water quality standards.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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