“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
- Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1893 - 1986
|Figure 4.30: Water lilies. Source: Lori Curtis|
Keeping Our Water Clean
The backbone of the Flathead Watershed is quality water. Our many rivers and streams recharge groundwater and create floodplain areas, riparian corridors, and wetlands maintaining water quality throughout the watershed. These natural systems filter nutrients, trap sediments, reduce flooding, and stabilize soils. Together, these functions sustain our rapidly growing population, our wildlife and fisheries, and our timber, agriculture, and tourism industries.
Federal, state, tribal, and local agencies develop rules and implement regulations to protect the health of our water and our way of life. These rules and regulations include a permitting processes and citations for violators. The economic and environmental costs of poor water quality, particularly in an area renowned for its natural resources, can be substantial. Poor water quality can:
- threaten fish and wildlife
- reduce agriculture and timber production
- impact growth
- diminish tourism and recreation
The context for assuring water quality is the federal Clean Water Act, which serves as a model for Montana’s Water Quality Act. Water quality standards have been developed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to ensure healthy and productive water systems for the natural environment and the people who live, work, and play in the watershed. State and local scientists analyze sediments, nutrients, metals, aquatic insects, and algae in order to determine the health of our waterways. For waters not meeting Montana standards, one framework for meeting water quality standards is the DEQ Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process. The TMDL is the maximum amount of a pollutant a given water body can handle before possibly incurring significant problems.
|“I don’t think you will find anybody on the surface of the earth today that doesn’t have at least 500 measurable chemicals in their bodies that were never in anybody’s body before the 1920s: chemicals that we know very little about.”
- Dr. Theo Colburn, renowned authority on endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment
|Figure 4.31: Town with falls. Source: Todd Berget|
The TMDL Process:
Each TMDL differs because impairments to lakes, rivers and streams vary. However, the process of diagnosis, target reduction setting, and recommending strategies for repair is similar. The TMDL process asks the following questions:
- What is the extent of the problem?
A set of parameters to characterize water quality is identified, detailed information gathered, and numeric targets representing compliance with applicable water standards are developed for many of the parameters. The gathered information is compared to the targets to assess the severity of the problem.
- What human activities are contributing to the problem and to what extent?
The activities contributing to pollutant loads are identified, the magnitude of the contributions are quantified, and natural background pollutant loading is quantified.
- What is the acceptable total load of pollutants?
The acceptable total maximum daily load (TMDL) is identified. Amounts above the TMDL need to be reduced in order to solve the problem.
- How can this problem be solved?
The necessary reduction within each category (allocation) is determined taking into account social and economic impacts and overall feasibility.
- The TMDL Report
The results of these steps are incorporated into a final TMDL report which provides a planning framework for local water quality protection and restoration projects.
There are three main sources of pollutants that influence water quality:
Point sources are discharges from an identifiable outlet such as municipal and public sewage discharge, stormwater outfalls, and industrial discharge.
Non-point sources are dispersed sources, including excess erosion from roads, agriculture and forestry activities, and construction, as well as unregulated storm water discharges, individual septic systems, and municipal sewer leakage.
Natural sources include sediment and nutrients from forest fires and naturally high concentrations of metals and chemicals from rock and soil that leach into surface and groundwater.
Point and non-point sources are the products of human influence on the landscape. The greatest percentage of stream and lake influences in Montana comes from non-point sources. The TMDL process is a problem-solving approach that results in a methodology for water quality improvement. The process helps to identify pollutants and ensure healthy water for current and future generations. The TMDL process must account for all land uses present in the watershed to characterize their pollutant contributions, all within resource and time constraints.
In the Flathead Watershed, the process incorporates a combination of a watershed-scale hydrologic modeling, lake response models, and on-the-ground field efforts to further identify and quantify pollutant contributions from all significant sources. Used in combination, these methods yield the best available picture of the current water quality conditions and apparent reasons for problems. The resulting TMDL report provides an assessment of water quality conditions and targets for improvement, allocates reduction among different contributors, and provides a strategy for restoration. It does not impose new regulations or implement TMDLs, although it can recommend sources of technical assistance for implementation.
Water Quality Indicators
While rivers, streams, and lakes in the Flathead Watershed may seem pristine, there are water bodies that do not support or only partially support one or more of their “beneficial uses.” Beneficial uses are defined by state water quality statutes and include drinking water, agricultural and industrial uses, habitat for aquatic life, cold water fisheries, and recreation. Probable causes for impairment include nutrients, siltation, suspended solids, flow alteration, organic enrichment, algal growth, organic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), metal, mercury, and noxious aquatic plants. Probable sources include runoff from development, old or poorly maintained septic systems, poor agricultural and timber harvest practices, and air pollution.
“Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer.”
- Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, humorist, and author
Because much of our water drains to Flathead Lake, the lake is a good indicator of the health of the rivers, streams, other lakes, and other waters that contribute to it. Flathead Lake remains one of the cleanest large lakes in the temperate regions of the world, but research shows that its water quality has been steadily declining. The University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station monitors water quality in Flathead Lake and reports its findings to the DEQ and to the Flathead Basin Commission.
|Flathead Basin Commission
|Flathead Lake Biological Station
|Montana Department of Environmental Quality
Water Quality Planning Bureau