Why We Need a Water Quality District

By Beacon Staff

My family has been in the Flathead Basin for six generations. I grew up on the lake in Dayton. After seven years of graduate training and a 25-year career in environmental health sciences with the Michigan Department of Public Health, I returned to the Flathead at the earliest opportunity for retirement (1997). My love for this country is completely bound up with its beautiful rivers and lakes and the mountains that spawn them.

There are important reasons why nearly all of us would want to see the quality of our waters protected. There are possible impacts on public health related to waterborne disease and toxic substances. We have managed to avoid many such situations that occur in other parts of the United States. Let’s keep it that way. Most of us benefit from the area’s recreational opportunities related to water. Our area’s economy is strongly affected by tourism related to the quality of our rivers and lakes. Our waters contribute to significant increases in property values for nearly all real estate owners in the proposed water quality district (WQD). The aquatic invasive species threat, recently emphasized as an important reason to create a WQD, is only one of many concerns.

It is well known by environmental health professionals that preventing defecation in only one end of the swimming pool doesn’t do much good. The proposal for a joint water quality district covering both Flathead and Lake counties is a very promising approach. This would cover all the interrelated waters of the basin.

The water quality district proposal has generated some scathing comments from residents regarding the cost and ineffectiveness of government. Sadly, they have a point. State protection efforts seem to be poorly organized with priorities spread over a wide area relative to limited funding. The bureaucratic practices for federal programs result in near paralysis in adapting to new situations. Supporting federal funds usually require years to obtain. In short, I do not trust state and federal government to protect our waters. We need a better way.

The effectiveness of group efforts frequently depends on the abilities of only a few persons. A joint water quality district offers a unique organizational approach that allows all of us to take some responsibility for protecting our own waters within the basin.

Under state law, once formed, a water quality district is operated under an independent board made up of local citizen representatives. It is strictly limited only to issues involving protection of water quality. Funding collected for supporting the district can’t be used for any other purpose.

A substantial part of the district’s business should be responding to local citizen’s water quality concerns reported directly to the board or to a proposed advisory council. In addition to other scientific oversight, local citizen input is the best means of early detection of water quality problems.

This direct citizen interaction with the district provides the fastest response to citizen concerns and the earliest resolution of reported problems. The goal would be the earliest possible evaluation of needed correction and limiting the damage. Assistance from the district may also avoid unnecessary litigation.

While the district may work with regulatory agencies, the district will not add to the regulatory burden. The district will actually give local citizens standing in resisting unneeded arbitrary regulations from higher levels of government.

Local funding preserves local independence. It also assures that protection of water quality in our basin will continue into the future when it may become even more important. Costs are low because of the efficiency of local organization. Costs are also spread evenly to all property owners as a fixed fee. It will not be a tax related to property appraisal. This fee must be published with the district plan. It is estimated to be about $10 per residential annual tax bill.

Hopefully, all property owners will study the proposed water quality district “Resolution of Intent” and make themselves aware of the nature of water quality districts before making a decision on approval.

If you agree we should take responsibility for protecting our own waters here in the Flathead basin, please tell your county commissioner.

Ted Williams lives in Polson.

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