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Q&A: Upper Missouri Waterkeeper

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Protecting water and preventing pollution

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

As the eyes and ears of a watershed, a waterkeeper is an independent public advocate for a watershed. As of July, southwest Montana has one watching over the 25,000 square-mile Upper Missouri River Basin.

A nonprofit organization, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s domain includes the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson/Big Hole watersheds, as well as the Sun, Smith and Missouri drainages to the north. These primary waterways total more than 1,527 miles, according to UMW founder Guy Alsentzer; the basin has hundreds of other smaller waterways, as well – ones he’ll likely get to know well in the coming years.

Alsentzer, 29, worked the last three years with a riverkeeper group on the Lower Susquehanna, in the mid-Atlantic. Prior to that, he was a law clerk at the Gallatin County Attorney’s office in Bozeman and at Western Environmental Law Center’s Northern Rockies Office in Helena. Those experiences gave him a sense for southwest Montana’s complex water quality issues.

In addition to earning a Juris Doctorate and Masters of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School, Alsentzer has a B.A. in political science and social justice from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and is a kayaker and fisherman.

In UMW’s first year, Alsentzer aims to learn more about pollution throughout the basin, he says, as well as efforts underway to mitigate it.

“One of the larger issues confronting communities and waterways here is, ‘how are we going to balance protecting our natural environment and our way of life, and at the same time allow for reasonable growth and a healthy economy?’”

The organization is a member of the International Waterkeeper Alliance, a movement founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to empower individuals in protecting and improving their local watersheds. UMW is the only grassroots-based nonprofit exclusively focused on water quality issues affecting this region, according to Alsentzer.


Explore Big Sky: What did you learn about the Upper Missouri Watershed while working at the Gallatin County Attorney’s office?
Guy Alsentzer: Gallatin County actually has some of the most progressive pollution laws in the state, in regards to riparian buffers. These vegetated sections abut or are adjacent to waterways, and they’re critical in providing natural filtration, shade and habitat for wildlife and aquatic species. They’re the most cost effective ways to reduce pollution in our waterways.

EBS: What has UMW done, so far?
GA: I’m working to get a grasp on the pollution issues here, researching the Montana Department of Environmental Quality laws and programs, and reaching out to watershed groups, decision makers and environmental conservation groups in the basin.

EBS: Any that stick out in your mind?
GA: In the Big Hole, there is a “Total Maximum Daily Load,” which is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant a water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards. The Big Hole River is affected by nutrient pollution and sediment. Some of that occurs naturally, while the rest comes from land use processes, wastewater treatment and agricultural operations.

EBS: Are those TMDL’s effective?
GA: The [TMDLs] regulate ‘point sources’ – any type of defined, discrete conveyance by which water or effluent can be let into a waterway. There are also ‘nonpoint sources’ of pollution, which are not as definite – they’re not coming out of a pipe, so they’re not as easily ascertained. For those, states typically rely on best management practices.

EBS: Agricultural or ski resort run off, for example?
GA: Yes. One of the critical issues in Montana is whether we’re effectively addressing nonpoint source pollution.

EBS: Tell me about an experience you have working with a farmer.
GA: The farmer next door to my family farm in York, Penn., used to dump his chicken manure next to the banks of a tributary of the Susquehanna River… Those manure stockpiles would flush down the stream during heavy rainfall – [a form of] nonpoint source pollution. I explained to him the impact of manure polluting water on his property and on the greater watershed.

EBS: Did he move his manure pile?
GA: With his frontend loader the next day.

EBS: Will you interact with the Montana legislature?
GA: Because we’re a small state population-wise, we have good access to our decision makers, and they want to hear from citizens. I see UMW as a conduit for the public, being able to talk on technical pollution issues to our decision makers.

EBS: What laws are you looking at now?
GA: What the Montana legislature has codified in terms of regulations and statutes pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act. More important is UMW’s goal of encouraging the state… to use strong pollution rules that best serve local communities and waterways. In other words, a federal baseline is not always appropriate for what’s going on at the state or local level.

EBS: How do nutrient and sediment pollution affect fisheries?
GA: Sediment – too much dirt in the water – alters the makeup of insect communities from the salmon fly hatches all the way down to midges. This in turn reduces fish spawning.

Nutrients also affect the insect population. Excess nitrogen, such as in the form of dissolved ammonia, which comes from our wastewater, can be toxic to fish and insects. Too much of either [sediment or nutrients] from human sources can cause excess algae, which depletes the supply of dissolved oxygen, killing fish and other types of aquatic life, [and even sometimes livestock].

Healthy streams strike a balance between organic and inorganic nutrients from natural sources… That balance relies on organisms that consume excess nutrients, as well as on the cycling of biologically fixed nitrogen and phosphorous into higher levels in the food chain.

EBS: What role do municipalities, communities and agencies play in protecting waterways?
GA: The municipalities in the Upper Missouri River Basin [are obligated to address] different sources of human pollution. The City of Bozeman, for example, put a lot of money into a new wastewater treatment facility. Now it [needs to] work on storm water runoff. This means using BMPs to stop erosion and sedimentation, keeping dirt out of storm drains in city limits, educating stakeholders and the public.

EBS: Why does this work matter to you personally?
GA: This is what makes me tick. Protecting waterways and communities is something I believe in as a Christian man, and also because I recreate outdoors on a weekly if not daily basis. I want to spend the rest of my life here. I want to make sure the environment is not just healthy for me, but for future generations.

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