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Every Drop Counts: River protections and designations: What do they all mean?

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A scenic stretch of the lower Gallatin River. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GALLATIN RIVER TASK FORCE

By Marne Hayes EBS COLUMNIST

Like our favorite eddy lines along the Gallatin River, the headlines have been swirling recently with news about protecting the river by setting and proposing river designations in several forms to ensure that our backyard treasure remains clear, healthy, and flowing for generations.  

But what do they all mean? 

The various proposed designations include Outstanding Resource Water, 303 (d) Listing as Impaired Waterway via the Clean Water Act, and Wild and Scenic. There are classifications as federal protections, state protections, acts of Congress, petitions, ballot initiatives, and measurements by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The designations are diverse, and each has its own parameters which can impart protection for a river. The key is to figure out how they all fit together, what protections they offer, and how they can all be used in the best way to give the Gallatin River the highest protection possible while preserving its outstanding qualities. 

Below is a breakdown of some of these designations:

Outstanding Resource Water designation is the highest level of state-regulated protection that can be given to a river, and in Montana, there are no other rivers designated as such outside of National Parks or Wilderness Areas. It is the most powerful tool for protecting rivers from a point-source discharge regulated by the state. ORW does not protect a river from federally permitted uses. Montana State law is set up to require a three-step process to designate a river as an ORW, beginning with a petition review by the Board of Environmental Review, followed by consent of the State Legislature, and finally a signature by the Governor. It is important to note that the most recent submission for a petition to enact a ballot initiative seeking designation of the Gallatin River as an ORW was written in a way that circumvents all of these processes outlined in Montana state law. This recent ballot initiative was also crafted in a way that changed the original language of the law, with the addition of disallowing permanent or temporary change in water quality, that the Gallatin River Task Force understands would prohibit future restoration work on the Gallatin River.

In the case of a 303(d) Listing of Impaired Waters, a river is designated as an impaired water if data indicates degraded water quality. Once a river is listed as impaired, the state and local stakeholders must work together to make a plan to improve water quality. Examples of impaired or threatened waters on the 303(d) list in Big Sky include the West Fork, South Fork, and Middle Fork of the Gallatin River. Recently, the Upper Missouri River Waterkeeper enlisted a collective of conservation groups, including the task force, to sign a petition asking the DEQ to list the Upper Gallatin as impaired. If the Upper Gallatin is in fact found to be impaired, a plan to restore water quality would be developed and enacted, with the goal of improving and repairing the river’s water quality.

By comparison, a Wild and Scenic River designation is strictly a federal protection and is considered to be the gold standard for river protection in the United States. To achieve this standard of protection requires an act of Congress and protects a river in a variety of ways. It prohibits federally licensed projects that impede the free-flowing nature of a river—like dams—protects rivers from federally permitted projects that would degrade a river’s water quality, and bans any federally permitted projects that would harm a river’s remarkable values tied to habitat, recreation and scenery, and cultural values.  A federal Wild & Scenic designation would be achieved for the Gallatin through the river’s inclusion in the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, a process which moves forward only through approval by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and would ultimately be signed by the president.  

Understanding how these designations work, how they are enacted, and what they mean for protecting a waterway is key. Given the appropriate process, any one of these would be a win for the Gallatin River.  Holding ourselves, our collaborators, and the community accountable to the state and federal processes by which these protections were written and designed is key to making sure that each of these tools is utilized to the standard for which it was created. One of these designations alone cannot protect the Gallatin River fully, which is why careful evaluation of each of these and an understanding of how they work is critical to the future and health of the Gallatin River.  

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