Flathead Bio Station Awarded $6.6 Million EPA Grant to Reduce Pesticide Pollution

Dr. Rachel Malison will use the funding to develop a comprehensive Pesticide Stewardship Partnership Program for the Upper Columbia River Basin

By Tristan Scott
University of Montana Assistant Research Professor Rachel Malison runs the Flathead Lake Biological Station's Monitoring Montana Waters program, which supports water quality monitoring by providing scientific, technical and financial support to citizen-science watershed groups. Courtesy photo

If what happens upstream matters downstream, a principle upon which Rachel Malison has based much of her two-decade-plus career studying freshwater systems, then the University of Montana research professor is poised to exert an outsized degree of influence over the Columbia River Basin’s 260,000-square-mile reach.

From her post at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, Malison is the architect of the research institute’s Monitoring Montana Waters (MMW) program, which supports water quality monitoring efforts in the state by providing scientific, technical and financial support to citizen-science watershed groups. Now, with a newly awarded $6.6 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Agency in hand, Malison plans to expand the program’s reach over the next five years to focus on monitoring and mitigating pesticide pollution.

“We’re sitting at the headwaters of the entire Columbia River Basin, and the headwaters feed the rest of the system,” Malison said in a recent interview to discuss the funding, which was awarded through the EPA’s Columbia River Basin Restoration Program.

The program will focus on reducing pollution to improve water quality, while engaging and educating the public on ways they can help reduce toxics from polluting our pristine waters.

“This funding enables us to build a network of stakeholders to implement projects on the landscape and better protect our waters,” Malison said. “We look forward to developing a set of resources that can be used by all, from residential users to producers, that will help us reduce the impact of pesticides on our waters and the aquatic communities that live in them. We also hope that this program will set the stage for further work on toxics reductions throughout the entire state of Montana.”  

A research specialist with the Flathead Lake Biological Station collects a water sample along the north shore of Flathead Lake. Beacon file photo

Covering an area of 260,000 square miles, the Columbia River Basin reaches 17 federally recognized Tribes and seven states — Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. The Columbia Basin provides not only significant ecological benefit to these regions, Malison said, but also supports critical economic industries, such as commercial fisheries, agriculture, forestry, recreation, and electric power generation. Montana’s portion of the Columbia Basin includes the Clark Fork, Kootenai, and Flathead rivers.

Working in collaboration with the Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana State University, and others, the new program will leverage matching resources to increase the impact of the program. Additionally, participating stakeholders will engage in sampling, education, and outreach, and lead actions to improve Montana’s waters.

This project will also work in collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho to address risks to human health from consumption of pesticides in fish.

“We are extremely excited for this EPA grant award,” Malison said. “This program will allow us to greatly expand our current work through the Bio Station’s Monitoring Montana Waters program in ways that will leverage community-led, citizen-based partnerships. Through the engagement of multiple stakeholders, producers, agencies, and the general public, we hope to reduce pesticides and toxics in the upper Columbia River Basin over the next 5 years.”

“This project is among several that EPA is supporting to address critical water quality needs in the Columbia River watershed,” according to a prepared statement from EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker. “Dr. Malison and her team have put together a much-needed and comprehensive program to develop data and use community engagement to reduce harmful pesticides affecting our waters. This grant is an investment in the health of northwest Montana’s rivers and streams, aquatic ecosystems, and the people and economies that depend on them.”

Pesticides are substances that prevent, kill, repel, or mitigate organisms that are harmful to cultivated plants or animals (“pests”). Pesticides often target insects (insecticides), but also include those that target plants (herbicides), fungi (fungicides), and even rodents (rodenticides). Despite the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, pesticide contamination in lakes and streams in the Columbia River Basin remains a concern today. Human activities have added toxic contaminants to the environment that contribute to human health and ecosystem risks.

Throughout the Basin, fish have accumulated contaminant levels that are harmful to people and wildlife when eaten. Toxics in fish are a primary health concern for Columbia River Basin Tribal people and other high fish consumers. Toxics also have negative impacts on the rest of the food web and very little is known about how pesticides influence aquatic systems in Montana.

Building upon the successful Pesticide Stewardship Partnership Program (PSPP) in Oregon, Malison’s program will include targeted water quality sampling for pesticides; implementation of actions to reduce pesticides in urban, residential, and agricultural areas; and monitoring for successful implementation. Some of the planned activities include green infrastructure projects to treat stormwater, increased residential and commercial pesticide waste collections, and educational watershed tours. All of the program activities will improve water quality by preventing toxics from entering the environment.

To date, there has been no comprehensive pesticide monitoring program in western Montana, which is where Malison’s new PSPP can make an immediate impact.

With clean water being a critical resource for all people and all aquatic ecosystems, Malison hopes this project can create a lasting legacy for future generations to come.

For more information about the EPA Columbia River Basin Restoration Program, visit their website at https://www.epa.gov/columbiariver/about-epas-work-columbia-river-basin#crbrp.