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Episode 11 - TMDLs

New year, new river? Making water quality resolutions

by Hannah Ridel, Montana Department of Environmental Quality

January 2022

It’s a New Year, which for many people, means a time for resolutions and reflections. If you expected this to be about New Year’s diet resolutions, you have the wrong Wellness column. I will reflect on pollution diets, otherwise known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs).

2022 marks 10 years since the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) concluded water quality monitoring for TMDLs in the Bitterroot watershed. When a river has a TMDL it indicates that there is too much of a certain pollutant for that river to support one or more beneficial uses, like aquatic life or drinking water, and there is a water quality improvement plan for that river to meet water quality standards. After DEQ concluded TMDL monitoring in 2012, 31 streams and rivers were identified as impaired, and in 2014, all TMDLs had been published. The most common water quality pollutants are sediment, nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen), and temperature. All 31 streams and rivers in the watershed are on a “pollution diet” and will only achieve water quality standards through voluntary actions of landowners to improve water quality.

If TMDLs are a river’s “pollution diet,” then restoration is like a river’s unwavering resolution to exercise. The New Year is one of my favorite times because it means awarding new funding to organizations like the Bitter Root Water Forum to complete restoration projects that will improve water quality. Since the TMDLs were completed, the Bitter Root Water Forum has received funding from DEQ allowing them to partner with local landowners to voluntarily implement nine distinct restoration projects. These projects improve water quality on lands used for everything from timber harvest, to agriculture, to public parks. DEQ estimates that the Water Forum’s projects to date have prevented nearly 300 tons of sediment per year from entering impaired streams—that’s about the weight of a Boeing 747 every year! Not only does each project improve water quality, but projects can benefit the value of the land by preventing erosion and improving efficiency of ranch operations or crop production.

Water quality monitoring, conducted through DEQ partnerships and volunteer monitoring programs like the Bitterroot River Health Check, shows that more best management practices are needed along impaired rivers in the Bitterroot watershed. Many landowners live along impaired streams and improving water quality will only happen through collective action to implement best management practices.

The most widely applicable way to improve and protect water quality is to restore and maintain native streamside vegetation like willows, cottonwoods, forbs, rushes, and sedges. This deep-rooted vegetation stabilizes soil and prevents erosion and sedimentation. It uptakes nutrients for growth and physically blocks pollution from entering streams— while also providing shade and reducing stream temperatures for a thriving fishery. Even if you are not a streamside landowner, you can get involved in improving water quality by not trampling vegetation while recreating along streams, or by volunteering with an organization like the Water Forum!

DEQ is seeing measurable improvements in water quality. For example, along Meadow Creek, the Bitterroot National Forest documented many water quality improvement activities, which spurred DEQ to conduct water quality monitoring and assessment. Results showed that Meadow Creek now meets the water quality standard for sediment and was removed from the impaired waters list in 2014. Reimel Creek and creeks in the Upper Lolo watershed are also expected to have water quality impairments “delisted” during the next DEQ reporting cycle to EPA.

If you are looking for new resolutions this year, consider taking steps to maintain streamside vegetation, raising awareness about water quality, and talking to the Water Forum about how you can improve your local stream channel.

Additional Resources:

Bitterroot TMDL Projects

Understanding the Montana TMDL Process

TMDL Program Website

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