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Conservation Advocates: Water-Quality Bill Could Sink MT Waterways

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Outdoor recreation is the second-biggest economic driver in Montana. (melissadoar/Adobe Stock)
Outdoor recreation is the second-biggest economic driver in Montana. (melissadoar/Adobe Stock)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
April 22, 2021

HELENA, Mont. -- Montana lawmakers have passed a measure to change how water quality is measured in the state.

Supporters said it will reduce red tape for water-treatment facilities, so they can stay in compliance with the law more easily. But conservation advocates are concerned it will imperil the state's waterways.

Senate Bill 358 changes water-quality measurements from numeric standards to narrative standards.

Guy Alsentzer, executive director and founder of the nonprofit group Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, fears the change will ultimately harm the environment.

"Key provisions of 358 really go to the heart of how do we on a very basic, fundamental level allow pollution into our waterways," Alsentzer asserted. "And strikes at the heart of whether or not we're going to allow science versus costs to dictate that process."

Algal blooms from nutrient runoff are a major concern in the state, and lowered water quality would also affect fish and aquatic life. The Legislature passed the bill but Alsentzer encouraged Gov. Greg Gianforte to veto it.

Tourism to the state's outdoor places is its second-biggest sector. A report from the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation finds it generates more than $7 billion a year and supports more than 70,000 jobs.

If the new water quality standards lead to more polluted waterways, Alsentzer said the state's economy could take a hit.

"It's not just a legal matter; it's a practical matter," Alsentzer emphasized. "This is going to undermine the foundation for our clean-water economy and countless jobs and businesses that depend on those healthy rivers."

Alsentzer added if Gianforte doesn't veto the bill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could step in to ensure the state is enforcing a science-based method for protecting rivers and streams.

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