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Big Sky Connection

Like other states, lawmakers in Montana have passed bills that would restrict access to abortion. However, a 1999 court decision provides an extra layer of protection for abortion care in the state. Comments from Caitlin Borgmann, executive director, ACLU of Montana. (Additional pronouncer: Knudsen, "kuh-NUD-sen.")

Click on the image above for the audio.  Nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen are major threats to water quality in Montana's rivers. (spiritofamerica/Adobe Stock)


Eric Tegethoff

An environmental group has filed a lawsuit in an effort to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to address changes to how water quality is measured in Montana.

Upper Missouri Riverkeeper says the EPA has failed to respond to changes put in place by the Montana Legislature in 2021. Senate Bill 358 changes how nutrients are measured in Montana waterways from a numeric system to a narrative system.

Lawmakers say the numeric system is too difficult and costly to implement. However, Guy Alsentzer, executive director of Upper Missouri Riverkeeper, said the narrative system is subjective and reactive.

He said Montana is well-known for its outdoor recreation - a $7 billion industry.

"That is predicated in large part on our clean and healthy outdoors and free-flowing rivers," said Alsentzer. "Yet the number one source of our pollution is - in fact - nutrients, and now we have a state law that's flouting requirements to fundamentally protect waterways from that."

The EPA must review states' changes to water quality standards to ensure they comply with the Clean Water Act.

SB 358 passed a year ago, but the state still is in the process of designing the new rules. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has not submitted the new rules to the EPA because of this.

But Alsentzer said the EPA has known for long enough that the state planned to start using what he calls an unproven method for measuring nutrients in water.

"EPA has a duty to take action," said Alsentzer. "This case is really about EPA sitting on its hands because of an uncomfortable political reality as opposed to doing its job."

Alsentzer said the city of Helena tried to apply for a wastewater permit renewal with the new standards, but his group challenged the process.

In response, the EPA wrote a formal letter to the state saying the numeric standard still is in place until the agency approves the updated rules.