Gallatin River

Environmental groups want the state to designate a portion of the Gallatin River as a Outstanding Resource Water, a legal designation that would protect it from pollution.

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An environmental law firm and a wildlife group are reviving a 17-year-old push for state protections on a section of the Gallatin River, a move they say is the only way to permanently shut the door on the idea of piping Big Sky’s treated wastewater into the stream.

Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and the Gallatin Wildlife Association filed a petition with the Montana Board of Environmental Review this week asking that the section of the Gallatin River from Yellowstone National Park’s boundary to the river’s confluence with Spanish Creek be designated as an Outstanding Resource Water. They argue that stretch of stream is worthy of the designation because it has wild and scenic values and because of the trout fishery it supports.

The designation would prevent the state from authorizing degradation of the river or any new pollution that harms the stream’s water quality. A similar petition was filed in 2001 but there was never a final decision, and the groups are asking the board to provide one now.

Josh Seckinger, of Cottonwood, said even highly treated wastewater could pose a risk to the wild trout population in the Gallatin, and he’s also worried about the impact of pharmaceuticals. No proposal to pipe treated wastewater from Big Sky into the Gallatin exists now, but Seckinger worries it will come eventually.

“They’re just unwilling to take the option of direct discharge off the table, and this is a way of doing that,” Seckinger said.

The Board of Environmental Review meets next Friday. The petition isn’t on the agenda. Montana Department of Environmental Quality public policy director Kristi Ponozzo wasn’t sure when the board would take up the petition.

The Gallatin River begins inside Yellowstone National Park and runs north to the Missouri River. The park portion of the river is already listed as an Outstanding Resource Water, and in 2001, American Wildlands filed a petition with the board requesting the designation for the stretch downstream to Spanish Creek.

Since then, the petition and the idea of the designation have never truly disappeared. Initially, the board directed the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to study the idea. DEQ produced a draft environmental impact statement in 2006 that proposed granting the protection, but the designation stalled a few months later.

According to a board memo from 2009, a rule-making process began in the fall of 2006. During a comment period, some people raised concerns that the designation might hamper development in the Big Sky area. The memo says that the petitioners and several developers requested a delay in the rule-making in early 2007.

Environmental groups and developers then began talks about dealing with wastewater there. According to the memo, a feasibility study the groups had a contractor conduct in 2008 indicated that a modification to the treatment plant in Big Sky “would be more effective in protecting Gallatin River water quality” than designating it as an Outstanding Resource Water.

Yet no final action on the petition was taken. The item returned to the Board of Environmental review’s agenda in 2012. According to meeting minutes, DEQ recommended that the board take no action, which left open the possibility that the board could reconsider the matter in the future.

Cottonwood’s revival of the petition came the same week that a coalition of environmental groups, developers and government officials released a stewardship plan for the Gallatin River that included some recommendations for dealing with wastewater in the future.

The recommendations included treating wastewater to the highest level possible and using it to make snow, but didn’t include a direct discharge into the Gallatin River. However, the plan isn’t legally binding and some who were involved don’t want to rule out the possibility of piping treated wastewater into the Gallatin.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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