Following a newly adopted strategic plan, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Water Quality Division is focusing a large portion of its non-point source pollution program funding into the Bitterroot River watershed over the next three years. This year, the Clean Water Action Section 319 Grant Program is distributing nearly $300,000 to the Bitterroot Watershed. That’s nearly 50% of the 319 funds distributed in the last 12 years.
The Nonpoint Source (NPS) Program works with federal, state, and local government and nonprofit groups to implement voluntary actions that protect and restore water quality from NPS pollution. These pollution sources are widely dispersed, and their impacts are cumulative. It is Montana’s largest source of water quality impairment.
According to DEQ, nonpoint source pollution can impact water quality, wildlife, land management, and social factors such as economics and aesthetic resources. Unlike pollution from industrial and sewage treatment plants (point sources), nonpoint sources of pollution are widespread and can be generated by most land-use activities. This type of pollution occurs when rainfall or snowmelt creates run off that carries dirt, oil, fertilizers, and other chemicals into streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Often, simple best management practices, such as establishing and maintaining riparian vegetation, can buffer waterways from nonpoint source pollution.
Given the widespread nature and collective impacts of nonpoint source pollution, generating momentum in water quality improvement is an essential component to documenting reduced nonpoint source pollution impacts. to focus a majority of its resources into select watersheds for up to three years. The first watershed selected, beginning in 2019, was the Bitterroot.
The Bitterroot Watershed includes all of Ravalli County and a portion of Missoula County to where the river flows into the Clark Fork. On July 9, DEQ hosted a Bitterroot Stakeholders Symposium that included representatives from the Bitterroot Water Forum, Bitterroot Conservation District, Bitterroot National Forest, Bitterroot River Protection Association, Clark Fork Coalition, Lee Metcalf Refuge USFWS, Lolo National Forest, Lolo Watershed Group, Missoula Conservation District, Missoula Valley Water Quality Advisory Council, NRCS staff, including District Conservationists, Ravalli County Environmental Health, and Trout Unlimited.
According to DEQ’s Focus Watershed Project Coordinator, Hannah Riedl, “A major reason the Bitterroot was selected as the first focus watershed is because of the multiple stakeholder groups working to improve water quality.”
Other criteria considered in selecting the Bitterroot as the focus watershed included the presence of ongoing actions on the ground that DEQ-provided resources could enhance, and the fact that local citizens, stakeholders, and visitors are interested in, support, and value the natural resources provided by water quality. They also found organizations here with the ability to track changes in water quality and key water quality indicators through time. The extent to which DEQ-supplied resources could provide increased momentum for water quality monitoring was also a factor. There is also a significant extent of nonpoint source pollution issues and related impairment conditions that can be addressed via traditional BMPs with the potential to reduce the community’s point source treatment costs by reducing upstream nonpoint sources of pollution.
The Bitterroot River watershed has over a dozen streams identified as being impaired, according to DEQ Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL) analyses issued in 2014. A Restoration Plan has also been developed and is being implemented. In that plan, recovery efforts in the drainages were prioritized into two tiers. The top most tier included the East Fork, Rye Creek, Cameron Creek, and Three-Mile Creek. Tier Two includes Sleeping Child Creek, Burnt Fork Creek, and Skalkaho Creek. Various restoration projects have taken place in some of these drainages over the last few years. According to Robert Ray of the DEQ Watershed Protection Section, the agency is currently in the process of conducting a formal evaluation of the progress being made or not made by these restoration efforts.
Ray said that 2019 project plans were currently being developed and are likely to focus on Reimel Creek, Laird Creek, Gilbert Creek, Buck Creek, Ditch Creek, Overwhich Creek and Hughes Creek with most emphasis on Buck, Ditch and Reimel Creeks. He said the evaluation would be available for review sometime in December.