Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The state has released a new plan to try to protect the Bitterroot River from nutrient pollution. While the state is still struggling to develop nutrient standards, the tools suggested in the plan are voluntary, making its effectiveness uncertain.

This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accepted the Bitterroot River Nutrient Protection Plan, a document developed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality over the past three years.

“DEQ is excited to have this nutrient protection plan in place to share guidance for protecting this valuable water resource,” said Lindsey Krywaruchka, DEQ’s water quality division administrator in a release. “The plan is not only the first in Montana, but also the region. It provides recommendations for community members to help maintain water quality in a watershed that represents what makes Montana special.”

Even though the Bitterroot River suffers from a few other issues, such as increasing water temperatures, altered channels and degraded streamside vegetation, it has yet to be impaired by nitrogen and phosphorus compounds collectively known as “nutrients.”

However, with the Bitterroot Valley’s rapidly growing population, that could change quickly, because human waste coming from septic and municipal wastewater systems is a leading cause of the nutrients currently invading the river.

In combination with water warmed by increasingly hot summer days, nutrients can feed algae, producing algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen and sometimes produce toxins. That would threaten the Bitterroot River’s primary uses, fisheries, recreation and agriculture. Algae currently grows at places in the Bitterroot River but hasn’t yet reached a level of concern.

Other sources of nutrients in the Bitterroot, known as “non-point sources” because they don’t emanate from a single location and aren't permitted, include run-off from crop and lawn fertilizer, animal waste, soil erosion and geological contributions. Septic systems are also considered non-point sources.

The concentration limit for nitrogen in the river is 0.3 milligrams per liter. Recent sampling produced concentrations averaging about 0.1 mg/l in the upper reaches of the Bitterroot River increasing to an average of about 0.23 mg/l near Missoula as more pollution is added through the valley.

To keep the Bitterroot River from facing the nutrient problems that plague other rivers in the state, including the Clark Fork River, it’s best to reduce the nutrients coming from all sources. But the point sources - septic and municipal wastewater systems - are the easiest to control.

DEQ modeled the nutrients resulting from two situations of population growth: one where a set amount of new housing was placed on individual septic systems, and one where the buildings were connected to municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Because treatment facilities do a better job of minimizing pollutants, the latter situation resulted in far less nutrient pollution in the river.

There are currently four municipal treatment facilities serving 30% of the residents in the valley: Lolo, Stevensville, Hamilton and Darby. The Lolo facility adds the most nitrogen to the river, while Hamilton contributes the least. But over the past decade, all have been trying to improve their efficiency with new equipment.

When the DEQ calculated the relative nitrogen loads, septic systems contributed 3 to 4 times as much nitrogen as wastewater treatment plants. That assumed all systems were in good working order, which is sometimes not the case.

So the plan recommends that households should be hooked up to municipal or centralized wastewater treatment facilities wherever possible to protect the nutrient status of the Bitterroot River. If that’s impossible, the houses should have specialized septic systems and drain fields that do a better job of limiting nutrients in the groundwater.

The plan’s language stresses that the recommendations are voluntary and that the plan should be used in conjunction with the Bitterroot River Watershed Restoration Plan, which focuses on controlling non-point sources along 13 tributaries of the Bitterroot River. DEQ encourages people to follow the plan’s recommendations to avoid degrading the river, which could result in lost revenue from recreation, property value, and other beneficial uses; increased need for restoration efforts; and increased water treatment.

DEQ presented the plan to 15 agencies and organizations, including the Clark Fork Coalition, Montana Trout Unlimited, the Bitterroot Water Forum, the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests and the University of Montana. When the plan was put out for public comment in March, no public comment was received. Requests for information made to the Clark Fork Coalition and Trout Unlimited were not returned.

Plans with voluntary recommendations don’t get as much pushback as those that are more regulatory. But research is showing that voluntary environmental recommendations made over the past few decades have limited to no effectiveness.

In 2014, two attorneys criticized the EPA’s acceptance of voluntary programs in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, saying many claims of success were made without any evidence.

“Government should be circumspect about the role of voluntary programs. Whatever claims agencies make about benefits from these programs should be backed up with careful research,” wrote Cary Coglianese, Pennsylvania Law School professor. “Perhaps some kinds of voluntary programs might have value within the broad portfolio of environmental policy, but our research on Performance Track suggests that the EPA and other agencies need to recognize the severe limits to this kind of voluntary program.”

In 2017, Don Scavia, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist, did some of that research, comparing the health of Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico with that of Chesapeake Bay.

All three waterbodies suffer from algae blooms. But the impaired region of the Chesapeake had dwindled over the previous decade because nitrogen and phosphorus loads dropped by 8% and 20% respectively between 2009 and 2015. Meanwhile deoxygenated regions of the Gulf and Lake Erie continued to grow.

The only difference is the states surrounding Chesapeake Bay asked the EPA to set federal limits on nutrients, known as total daily maximum load, and create penalties if limits weren’t met. Meanwhile, the states around Lake Erie and along the Mississippi River chose to implement voluntary plans to reduce nutrients.

A 2015 report by Marc Ribaudo, Economic Research Service senior economist with the United States Department of Agriculture, had analyzed the same regions and concluded “the voluntary approach has generally not led to an aggregation of conservation effort in impaired watersheds sufficient to produce measurable improvements in water quality.”

Despite more than 35 years of research and monitoring, more than 20 years of assessments and goal-setting, and more than $30 billion in federal conservation funding since 1995, average nitrogen levels in the Mississippi have not declined since the 1980s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In the meantime, DEQ is still struggling to develop a narrative nutrient standard acceptable to the EPA that it can use to regulate impaired waters across the state. With numeric standards, each waterbody has a nutrient limit, such as 0.3 mg/l. Most pollutants are regulated by numeric standards. If that limit is exceeded, action must be taken. On the other hand, narrative standards are descriptive, meaning damage must be witnessed before action is taken.

The 2021 Legislature passed a bill mandating a narrative nutrient standard after Montana adopted numeric standards in 2015.

Over 5,000 waterbodies across the nation are on the EPA’s impaired waters list due to nutrients, primarily from non-point sources. The future will tell whether or not the Bitterroot River avoids the same fate.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com

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