HELENA, Mont. (CN) — After leading the nation in setting effective water standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, the state of Montana is being forced to backpedal due to state legislation. But since the federal government also has a say in water quality, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality finds itself stuck in a power struggle.
This week, a group of Montana environmental organizations sent a letter to Montana Department of Environmental Quality asking the department to follow federal Clean Water Act requirements by officially informing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of changes to its policy regulating nutrients in state waters.
“Why are we asking for a formal submission? Because somewhere, something’s happening that’s disingenuous,” said Guy Alsentzer of Montana-based Upper Missouri River Waterkeeper, one of the groups that signed the letter.
Nutrients — chemical compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus and key ingredients in commercial fertilizers — are increasingly in the news as they pollute the nation’s waters, causing algae mats to invade river channels and choke aquatic environments of oxygen. From the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, water is increasingly degraded and sometimes toxic, affecting fish and people alike. In Florida waters, nutrient-fed algae are choking out native seagrass, causing hundreds of endangered manatees to die of starvation.
Last year, the deoxygenated “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico — caused by nutrient-laden waters from the Mississippi River — was bigger than it’s been in the past five years, covering more than 6,300 square miles, larger than the size of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie combined. Tributaries of the Mississippi River across 31 states contribute some level of nutrients to the Gulf, especially in the spring as farmers spread fertilizer on their fields.
The EPA has long recognized nutrients in water as a national problem. Nutrients do occur naturally, but human activities that add nutrients — municipal waste treatment, septic fields, agriculture, mining — are increasing. And climate change effects are only making matters worse.
More than two decades ago, the EPA sought to get ahead of the nutrient problem by encouraging states to exchange more vague narrative water quality standards for numerical standards. Numerical standards already set measurable concentration limits for most water pollutants, such as mercury or arsenic. Response can be quicker because states must take action if water samples exceed the set concentrations.
Many states haven’t complied, though in 2009 Montana became the first state to pass legislation to do so. A headwaters state, Montana has long prided itself on clear streams and blue-ribbon trout populations. But in the 1980s, Montanans grew increasing concerned about mats of algae spreading throughout some fishing streams.
Montana's environmental quality agency and university scientists spent several years developing regional numerical standards for state streams, and in 2014 the agency submitted its new rule to the EPA, which granted approval in 2016.
It should have been a small win for the Clean Water Act, the headwaters of Montana and points downstream. But it wasn’t that simple.
Montana’s larger polluters, those that require discharge permits, discovered the equipment needed to filter nutrients from their wastewater is quite expensive. At the time, the only real option for municipalities was reverse-osmosis, and depending on the size, equipment could cost $1 million to more than $25 million.
Mayors and town managers with tight city budgets pushed back. So the environmental quality agency created a variance program to give municipal polluters up to 20 years to achieve the permit limits required by numerical standards. During that time, polluters could raise money or wait for cheaper technology but didn’t have to reduce the amount of nutrients they expelled. The EPA consented to the variances until Upper Missouri River Waterkeeper took the feds to court for allowing economic considerations to override the Clean Water Act.