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Montana now has the opportunity to designate the Gallatin River as its first Outstanding Resource Water (ORW). It would provide protection from having the river used as a sewage mixing zone. Big Sky Sewage and Water District now holds a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) dumping permit for treated sewage. When asked why they don't relinquish this unneeded permit, they say it is their insurance against an emergency failure.
ORW designation from where the river flows out of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) 38.6 miles downstream to the confluence of the Spanish Creek, would prevent the DEQ from authorizing projects that would further degrade the river's quality and quantity for future generations.
Early in 2000, American Wildlands presented a petition, containing signatures of 2,500 citizens and 141 business owners, to DEQ's Montana Board of Environmental Review (BER) to designate the Gallatin River as the state's first ORW. It is legally authorized under the federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) passed by Congress in 1972. The Gallatin River is a fragile, over-used, ecologically and recreationally important river that requires ORW protection with the large developments in the Big Sky Area on the West Fork of the Gallatin River. ORW would apply to the main stem of the river, but also protects its tributaries from pollution and dewatering. Commercial and industrial activities with pollution discharges and water diversions in tributaries would not be allowed if their cumulative effects would degrade the water quality and quantity.
The Gallatin River is a national resource for blue ribbon fisheries, rafting, kayaking and wildlife. Flowing out of the west side of the Gallatin Range and the east side of the Madison Range, and with its source in a pristine part of Yellowstone National Park, it is a treasure for scenic beauty, wildlife habitat and water quality. It is rated as one of the top 100 fisheries in the nation. At present the river suffers from pollution, dewatering and large hot asphalt trucks traveling along the river's length in a narrow V-shaped canyon. Cabin owners complain that the DEQ is allowing the quality of the Gallatin's waters to degrade. Kayakers are now wearing nose plugs because of pollution. It seems more polluted” says a white water paddler who has experienced the river for 10 years.
How Can We Obtain ORW Designation?
Any citizen or organization can submit a petition for ORW designation to DEQ's Board of Environmental Review (BER). After American Wildlands presented its petition, the BER directed DEQ to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Gallatin River. DEQ needed $250,000 to complete the EIS, but the legislature would not allocate the funds in 2001 and in the subsequent 3 years DEQ could not find the money in its budget. Senator Mike Wheat sponsored Senate Bill (SB) 376 in the 2005 legislature, directing DEQ to complete the EIS by the end of 2006. This bill was defeated in a tie partisan vote. Subsequently the legislature authorized the $250,000 in the final state budget, but then the legislature removed the money and despite the lack of funding they directed DEQ to complete the EIS. DEQ finally found the money and the EIS was started.
The procedure calls for the EIS to be approved by the BER, then it will be sent to the legislature for approval on a vote. If passed, the ORW proposal will go to the Governor for his required signature. The draft EIS is now available for inside government review. At this date DEQ says further analysis of the EIS will be made by the interim committee and much work remains to be completed. By January 15, 2007, the seven member BER will review the EIS and we can expect them to vote on the ORW designation.
BER has held several public hearings in the Gallatin Gateway area with the purpose of answering questions on what effects ORW designation would have. If the public is convinced the river needs protection and the EIS indicates positive benefits for water quality, then conceivably legislation could be passed in the 2007 session to make it happen.
Naysayers and Dissenters to Outstanding Resource Waters
Testimony against ORW designation at the Gallatin Gateway public hearings came from landowner speculators, Southwest Montana Building Industry Association, Montana Association of Realtors, Montana Contractors Association and the Western Montana Trade Association, subdividers and developers mostly from the Big Sky area.
Before 1970, what is now Big Sky was undeveloped forest and mountains containing the finest wildlife habitat in the nation. Today it is covered with high density business centers, golf courses, expensive homes, condominiums and estates for the wealthy. Service workers not commuting from Bozeman live on its periphery. The building industry says “ORW is a jobs versus environment issue.” Real estate and developing businesses say “ORW will restrict development and is not necessary to protect the river. Landowners along the river say “ORW will bring on financial ruin because our livelihood is tied to real estate.” In 2004, the Southwest Montana Builders Association protested ORW saying it was too draconian and uncertain. Montana Association of Realtors Executive Vice-President Peggy Trenk suggested the environmentalists pay the $2,500 cost of the EIS. The timber industry added their protest saying “ORW could cut off more than 200,000 acres from timber cutting. Other real estate salesmen said ORW could reduce the number of houses built from 652 to 67 houses. Representative John Sinrud feared that ORW could stifle development and would cut off access to the river. Some real estate agents said ORW would restrict expanding sewage treatment facilities and discourage dumping waste water into the river's tributaries. Landowners said ORW designation would limit their land values and threatened a takings lawsuit.
Initially, the 3-person county commission wrote letters in support of ORW. Then commissioners Murdock and Skinner withdrew their support for the EIS and are taking a neutral position. They are concerned about DEQ expanding the scope of the EIS to include the river's tributaries. Most of the dissenters' testimony centered on loss of business and profit from land sales. Originally the Big Sky area was transferred to the U.S. General Land Office. Much of the land was then granted free in checkerboard ownership to the Northern Pacific Rail Road (NPRR) as payment for a commitment to provide railroad services to the West. Since NPRR was one of the original investors in Chet Huntley's Chrysler Motor Company's Big Sky Reality, the land once again changed ownership. Big Sky was also given a free highway up to the winter village (U.S.191 spur) by the federal taxpayer. The land is now the most expensive real estate in Montana and is now being marketed for multi-millions. ~
Also see our: Gallatin River / Big Sky page.
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