A Rare Win for Water Quality

Run-off pipe at a paper mill. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Montana’s environment isn’t getting much help from the legislature, but thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper group, the state is going to have to re-do its 20 year variance on acceptable discharge levels for the nutrients/pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus. Make no mistake, this is a definite win for Montana’s water quality at a time when our rivers and lakes are showing clear signs of stress from too many nutrients.

The lawsuit stems from a 2015 decision by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set “base” levels for nitrogen and phosphorus to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The primary point source for the nutrients is from wastewater treatment plants that discharge to state waters.

The problem, according to DEQ, is that it will require significant investment to upgrade treatment technologies to meet the new standards. Consequently, citing the economic impact required to achieve sufficient pollutant reductions, DEQ decided to let dischargers have up to 20 years to meet the more stringent base levels.

The problem, according to Waterkeepers, is that equates to potentially no progress on controlling the pollutants until the deadline is reached. Moreover, as we have seen far too many times in a number of other pollution issues, the deadline would likely be extended.

Ironically, the ruling comes hard on the heels of a recent article on the problems being experienced on our rivers and lakes from algae blooms, some of which are so toxic they can be lethal for humans, pets and livestock. Certainly anyone who has fished the world famous stretch of the Missouri River from Wolf Creek on down can readily attest to the vast amounts of aquatic weeds floating in the river in summer. These weeds grow profusely when fertilized — which is exactly what nitrogen and phosphorus do when dumped in water bodies.

Likewise, blue-green algae warnings were posted at a number of lakes last summer warning swimmers, anglers and campers to stay out of the water and keep their pets from drinking it. That’s pretty serious when you consider Montana is a headwaters state with its river and lake water originating in the high peaks of the Northern Rockies — and thus starts with some of the cleanest water in the nation.

While DEQ contends that reverse osmosis is the only current technology capable of meeting the new standards, the agency might want to revisit a law that’s been on the books since Ben Cohen, a visionary legislator from Whitefish, passed the local phosphorus detergent ban in the mid-80s. Cohen’s bill allows any county to implement a ban on detergents containing phosphorus, which then keeps the pollutant from entering the waste stream. The measure was passed primarily to protect Flathead Lake’s crystalline waters and has been responsible for keeping tons of phosphorus out of the lake in the decades since its implementation.

There’s absolutely no reason Montana shouldn’t have a statewide phosphorus detergent ban since there are plenty of excellent phosphorus-free detergents on the market. Until that happens, however, any county in the state can use the existing law to implement its own phosphorus detergent ban.

When you consider the amount of phosphorus entering our waterways from wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, we have a choice. The state can continue to make excuses and issue variances. Or we can take this simple, low-cost step to keep phosphorus out of the wastewater and give our world-famous rivers and lakes the protection they — and future generations — deserve.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.