The Treasure State. The Last Best Place. These monikers ring true partly because of the pristine waters in Montana’s lakes and rivers.
Recently the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill that decreases regulations on nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants allowed to be discharged into lakes and rivers. The bill heading says, “An act eliminating nutrient criteria from Montana water quality standards.”
Six years ago the state created “numeric nutrient standards” limiting how much nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, mining blast waste, and fertilizers can go into the water. The standards were numerical, meaning measureable. Despite more opposition than support for Senate Bill 358, the law has now been changed to “narrative nutrient standards.”
What’s the difference between numeric and narrative? Numeric is explicit, a measurable quantity. Narrative is vague, not easy to measure, and each waterway will be defined individually.
From the EPA: “High nitrogen and phosphorus loadings, or nutrient pollution, result in harmful algal blooms, reduced spawning grounds and nursery habitats, fish kills, oxygen-starved hypoxic or ‘dead’ zones, and public health concerns related to impaired drinking water sources and increased exposure to toxic microbes such as cyanobacteria. Nutrient problems can exhibit themselves locally or much further downstream …”
Feel like swimming in Flathead Lake?
Proponents of the bill included representatives from the Montana Coal Council, the petroleum association and the mining association. Opponents included ranchers, fishing guides, Trout Unlimited, and many water scientists.
In all natural settings, it’s easier to prevent a problem than to reverse one afterwards. Ten years from now the sentiment might be, “We don’t like how this turned out, let’s go back to how it was before we took away measurable standards for pollutants.” If the cascade of damaging events happens to lakes and rivers, it’s hard to reverse, both here and downstream.
No one wants to see Montana’s lakes and rivers deteriorate. In our county Flathead Lake is a treasure, as well as an economic powerhouse. Changing pollutant limits from measureable numeric standards to vague narrative ones may set a cascade of problems in motion.
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