Water pollution blues



Flathead Valley's water quality blues

Pollution spells trouble for those living nearby the lake

The clear blue waters of Flathead Lake, a mecca for boaters, anglers and tourists of all stripe, hold a secret. Though the lake, the largest west of the Mississippi River, poses no threat to human health, the truth of the matter is that the water body is gradually becoming more and more polluted.

Scientists call some of these pollutants "nutrients," but that's not because they're good for the environment.

On Flathead Lake, where efforts are ongoing to reduce the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus, such elements have contributed to the lake being labeled by the state as an "impaired" water body. Such nutrients over-feed plants and algae, throwing into disarray the food chain which sustains native bugs and fish-such as the bull trout, recently listed by the federal government as an endangered species-and contributing to other water quality problems.

Doubts as to who's going to pay for efforts to deal with such issues have been a stumbling block. But with increased population in the Flathead Valley-which has been growing at an average of 2 percent per year since 1970-and its attendant housing development, those charged with keeping the lake clean say that it's not too early to begin to try and cope with shifts in nutrient loading and other issues.

"The thing about Flathead Lake," says Jack Stanford, lead researcher at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, "is that it is so clean we can demonstrate changes that indicate impairment."

Of particular concern, Stanford says, are the blue-green algae blooms, not unlike those which have turned the Clark Fork River into a murky green ribbon in recent years, which afflicted the lake most recently in 1993. The appearance of algae reflects high levels of nutrients, and is but one indicator that water quality may be suffering.

Monitoring of a multitude of rivers and streams throughout the Flathead basin, including the forks of the Flathead River, the Whitefish and Clearwater rivers, as well as a variety of streams, has revealed that run-off from farm lands, homesteads and logged forests have been contributing to pollution. Ultimately, this could mean trouble for not just water quality, but property values along the lake's shores and the businesses reliant on a vibrant tourism industry as well.

Since 1983, at the behest of the state, the Flathead Basin Commission has been working on water quality issues in Western Montana's most famous watershed. The commission is a small group with only one full-time staff member, working in conjunction with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (itself acting on orders from the federal Environmental Protection Agency) to assess threats and educate Flathead Valley residents and businesses as to ways to eliminate environmental dangers to the lake.

In response to the demands of the Clean Water Act, the DEQ has placed Flathead Lake on a variety of lists, including the one that designated it "impaired," and made available funds to study nutrient loading and other influences on the lake's water quality. One of the commission's main thrusts has been to study non-point source pollution loads (essentially run-off, including agricultural waste), and determine how to reduce pollution.

Currently, according to Mark Holston, who heads the commission, the group has an annual budget of $75,000, of which $45,000 comes from the state. But just as the oxygen in the lake itself is slowly being depleted, so too have the funds for the commission-namely those from the Flathead and Lake county governments-begun to disappear. The money problem began five or six years ago, Holston says, and now the counties contribute nothing to cleanup efforts.

"County governments have been a no-show on the issue," Holston says. "I think it's a sad statement on the part of the local leadership."

Twelve-year Flathead County Commissioner Howard Gipe, however, defends his office's decision to cut back funding for the commission and its projects. Noting that the county government "kicked in $5,000 for years," Gipe says that he has decided that the money would be better spent on the county's Water Quality District. Getting rid of septic tanks, he says, should go a long way toward controlling pollution.

Christian Levine, a DEQ water quality specialist, maintains an optimistic viewpoint concerning the commission's efforts to decrease the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen. But Levine also says that it would be in the counties' interest to come up with some money for the Flathead Basin Commission.

"It would be nice if the counties would give some of the financial resources back, because they're benefiting from the high water quality," Levine says. "We need the assistance of the county-both Flathead and Lake counties-and the [Salish and Kootenai] tribes."

In the meantime, Holston says, he's preparing to go forward with plans to hire a new outreach person with a recent $100,000 grant from the feds. That person, whose position is slated to be approved this week, will head up efforts to raise public awareness, and also work with private land owners on approaches to stem the tide of non-point source pollution.

Working off a year-old report pulled together by the scientists at the biological station, Holston says, the long-term goal is to reduce the total maximum daily load of phosphorus and nitrogen by 15 percent over the next decade. The starting place for this effort will be the Whitefish and Stillwater rivers, and Ashley Creek, all at the north end of the lake.

Photo by file
Pollution from agricultural and industrial lands flows into Flathead Lake from a variety of streams and rivers, including Yellow Bay Creek near the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

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