Over Development: A Threat To Our Gallatin River – Fins and Feathers Bozeman
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Over Development: A Threat To Our Gallatin River

The number of people who love Montana’s beautiful waterways is growing and the time to act before the protection of rivers is left behind is shrinking.

By Michael Dooley

For many, the Gallatin is not simply a river they drive by on the way to Yellowstone National Park or on their commute to work, it is where their grandfather taught them how to cast, the waterbody a buddy netted their biggest fish, or the place they go to find peace of mind. Fly fishing the Gallatin River is a quintessential part of being a die-hard fly angler. The picturesque mountain stream hosts thousands of anglers per year and was the filming location of the most well-known fly fishing movie ever, A River Runs Through It. Locals and visitors alike mosey their way through the stunning Gallatin Canyon enclosing one of the most famous Montana rivers, for a chance to enjoy a natural experience just minutes from the heart of Bozeman. The number of people who love Montana’s beautiful waterways is growing and the time to act before the protection of rivers is left behind is shrinking.

The Gallatin River is an important source of recreation, water, and wildlife for Gallatin County. Fly anglers find the river appealing for its easy-to-access banks on public land and rafters love the technical thrill of making their way through class III and IV rapids. But in the last two decades, algae has infiltrated the mainstem and various other branches of the river. Algae blooms have since appeared every summer, progressively worsening as more pollution is pumped into the river from poorly processed wastewater. The once small resort town nestled in the mountains, called Big Sky, is having a profound effect on the water quality. As recreationists, their needs to be concern for the growing evidence of detrimental pollution to our river and focus on finding solutions.

Growing Pollution and Algae Growth

In the past decade, the population has over doubled in the Big Sky and antiquated developmental systems are negative contributors to pollution in the Gallatin River. The algal blooms are a major indicator of a waterway heading in the wrong direction. Not only does it color the river a noxious green but it can have adverse effects on the river’s ecology. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) nutrient-rich water can create an overabundance of plant and algae life that can have toxic effects on creatures that call those waterbodies home. Nitrogen and phosphorous are the most common nutrients to occur in excess and these create a process called eutrophication. This process adds excess nutrients to the water that then accelerates the growth of algae that takes oxygen from the water and makes it an inhospitable place for fish and other members of the ecosystem.

The neon green algal blooms have infested the water each summer for over a decade and they only seem to get worse. Agents against pollution, like The Gallatin River Task Force and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, are instrumental organizations in creating change for the watershed. Their data and activism have strengthened the support for preserving the Gallatin River from mismanagement due to overdevelopment and inadequate wastewater systems. The Gallatin River Task Force “and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MT DEQ) first identified an “algae problem” in the West Fork Watershed in 2005 by monitoring both nutrients and algae biomass” and they continue to do that today by providing reports that can be used to fight against detrimental actions to our beloved recreational waterways.

The task force reported on water quality in 2019 and found an overabundance of pollution and sediment in the stream. This water quality can only worsen as Big Sky continues to grow, especially since the Yellowstone Club plans to initiate artificial snow-making sourced from treated wastewater that will add to the pollutants entering the river as the snowmelt seeps into the Gallatin when spring returns to Montana.

Reusing wastewater for the lawns of Big Sky golf courses and ski hills is a genuine way to avoid using unnecessary amounts of freshwater but it can have harmful impacts that ultimately damage the river system in the long run. There is a lack of accountability held to the people that are in the position to do the most damage to the watershed and the people overseeing environmental protection. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) admitted their lack of oversight in ensuring the water quality of the Gallatin River for Big Sky Resort’s snow-making plans but they were still greenlighted. To properly manage our public land and water we need organizations to fight for the Gallatin to preserve a well-loved and used ecosystem.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is instrumental in the movement for clean water and has filed a recent complaint as of July 16, 2021, in response to Montana DEQ’s issuance of Septic Pollution Permit in Big Sky. This complaint claims the DEQ did not properly consider the environmental harm that could be had to the river from the new septic discharge system. As residents of such an environmentally rich state, it is mandatory to ensure environmental health is prioritized ahead of development and all measures are taken to preserve the Gallatin.

As a town essentially sitting on the banks of the river it is important that they be held to a high standard of control and cleanliness as their contribution to pollution affects everything downstream of their involvement. This process of eutrophication is a red flag to anglers who cherish the Gallatin for its high fish concentrations and crystal clear water as excess algae will eventually harm the present ecosystem and alter it for the worse.

What Can We Do to Change the Outcome?

The summer of 2021 challenged every watershed in Montana by raising water temperatures to unhealthy levels and facilitating increased growth for algae. As Montana grows and continues to experience drought conditions it is important as conservationists and recreationists to prioritize our natural waterways over development and growth because the watershed cannot be easily restored to pristine condition once the water quality is severely affected and developments are built. Drought conditions may very well continue to have an impact on our streams in the coming years and we cannot rely on heavy snowpacks to help heal the Gallatin. Prioritization of our Blue Ribbon streams starts with the people who frequent them and care about their health. Preservation is more effective than restoration.

Gallatin River Task Force and Upper Missouri Waterkeeper advocate heavily for water quality protection in Montana and are at the forefront of the charge to keep pollutants from entering the Gallatin. These organizations rely on volunteers to monitor stream quality, repair stream vegetation, and fight for environmental rights for our waterways. Volunteering is one way to get involved, but these organizations also rely on donations to fund their work and research. Donate at UM Waterkeeper or Gallatin River Task Force or volunteer your time to help make a difference.

Additionally, petitions and lawsuits raised to support a healthy Gallatin River are available for support, such as Cottonwood Environmental Law Center’s lawsuit and petition to designate the Gallatin as an “Outstanding Water Resource” (OWR) and UM Waterkeeper letter requesting a “Cold Water Fisheries Task Force” from Governor Gianforte. These are pivotal movements that can make a change for a healthier water system in the future.

An OWR designation will give the Gallatin the highest level of protection available and loopholes on pollution would not be as easily accessible. The task force would be a constant presence assessing the cleanliness and quality of water in Montana. The letter asks for the “formation of a cross-government, multi-agency task force that would begin an important process of identifying meaningful policy changes, seeking proactive agreements with landowners, and implementing science-based long-term solutions to address the declining health of Montana’s iconic cold water fisheries.” By supporting these organizations you can help turn the tide in environmental protection in Montana. As the local community grows, make sure policies and protection of natural resources grow along with the population.

Joining a water protection organization allows Montana residents a key opportunity to push towards sustainability and healthy growth in the Gallatin Canyon that will continue for generations to come. Fly fishing is more than a hobby in Montana, for many, it is a way of life and a mantra towards respecting a precious gift that gives so much joy to Montana residents. Do your part to remain responsible for the health of the streams and the trout that make Bozeman such a special fly fishing community.