Flathead’s Water Quality Under Scrutiny

By Beacon Staff

As the state’s Department of Environmental Quality ramps up its efforts to determine the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for pollutants in the Flathead watershed, it has changed its approach and increased the size of its project team in order to deal with the area’s complex and large water system.

According to the Montana Water Quality Act, the DEQ in conjunction with local advisory groups and conservation districts must establish TMDLs for water bodies in order to set limits on and manage a wide range of potential pollutants, including nutrients, sediments, metals and various chemicals such as pesticides, among other intrusive substances. Flathead Lake is currently listed as an “impaired water,” meaning it exceeds its TMDLs in various areas and fails to reach official water quality standards. TMDLs are crucial for water restoration plans.

On Sept. 4, officials from the DEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency held a public meeting at Kalispell’s Hampton Inn to discuss the progress of the current research process and future goals. Ron Steg of the EPA said the he expects to have all of Flathead Basin’s TMDLs determined and documented by 2010. But even then, they are updated as necessary, he said. Researchers have been collecting empirical and numerical data in the basin for several years.

George Mathieus of the DEQ said usually one planner is assigned to each district and works with local groups to formulate TMDLs. But this time in the Flathead, because of the size and complexity of the watershed here, he said DEQ, along with EPA, has formed a team, with Mathieus serving as the head planner. Further complicating the process in the Flathead basin is the number of different groups involved: two countries – Canada and the United States; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; multiple counties and Glacier National Park.

“This is a water body and watershed of international significance,” Steg said.

At the meeting, which was attended by a variety of local officials including County Commissioner Joe Brenneman and city representatives from Whitefish, Steg and Mathieus described the importance of public involvement, particularly with “stakeholders:” residents and entities who could be affected by the TMDLs.

DEQ is seeking comment from a wide range of groups, from representatives in the tourism industry to livestock owners to members of the forest industry, among many others. The Sept. 4 meeting presented a broad overview of TMDL efforts, while subsequent meetings will be more specifically aimed at local groups and individual concerns.

The public process in the Flathead will be more sweeping than past efforts, Mathieus said at the meeting.

“We’ve never done something like this in the past,” he said.