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Guest Opinion: Water (and waste) run downhill – and our rivers pay the price

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know water - and rivers - run downhill. That would be just fine if all we still got from our majestic snow-capped mountains was some of the cleanest water on the planet. But that's not the case because water picks up and carries downhill all the vast variety of pollutants modern civilization so callously exudes.

The gut-wrenching email from an old friend hit the inbox with the pictures of what was once a gin-clear stretch of the Gallatin now filled with weeds. Gone was the healthy population of trout that had been there on the same family land for nearly a century. Where, they asked, had the trout gone? Why were all the weeds there when it had always been a free-stone riverbed? And finally, who should we write and what can we do about it?

The sad fact is the weeds are there thanks to the enormous amount of nutrients, poorly treated wastewater, sediment, and runoff flowing into the Gallatin River from Big Sky, the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin and the vastly over-developed subdivisions stuffed into one tiny drainage and clogging the river's once nearly-empty banks. It's the same pollution that has turned the once-pristine Gallatin River neon green every summer now - in a river you could once drink from while casting a fly on it's world-famous waters.

But all that over-development, the pollution, and the neon green riverbed were 40 miles upstream from the family's land. So why were the weeds clogging the river now? The answer is evident, but one Montana's regulatory agencies, governor, and Legislature refuse to acknowledge. You can only put so much pollution and so many nutrients in any water body before it inevitably degrades. Now the Gallatin River joins the growing list of Montana's impaired waterbodies where once the clear, clean and cold mountain waters flowed.

Hotels, motels, multi-million-dollar vacation homes with manicured lawns, stores, huge parking lots, hundreds of subdivision homes, and - get this - ski slopes that are sprayed with "treated" sewage from the massive development.

Nothing, repeat, nothing stays in the canyon because it's solid bedrock - so when the "infiltration" ponds or septic systems or ski slopes sprayed with wastewater filter down through the thin alpine soil cover, it hits the rock and heads downhill. And at the bottom of downhill is the Gallatin River where, 40 miles downstream there's a weed-filled channel where once-crystalline waters sparkled over a clean rock bottom.

We have been duped that our regulatory system protects the incredibly valuable "public trust" assets upon which we all rely for drinkable water, breathable air, healthy soils, and the wondrous and vastly diverse web of life the natural ecosystems sustain.

Despite all the assurances from developers and their political pals who write the laws and supposedly enforce them, the regulatory system is a sham. The truth is as undeniable as the neon green Gallatin - or the weed-filled channel where three generations of Montanans once cast flies to the rising trout now gone.

And as the water runs continues to run downhill with its load of chemicals, nutrients, and wastes, the health of our legendary rivers and streams likewise is heading downhill at an alarming rate.

Montana's list of impaired waters is getting longer every year while the charade of "regulation" goes on and the politicians continue to lie about how we can "do it right." They haven't stopped mine pollution, industrial site pollution, or non-point runoff. And they surely haven't stopped the pollution from the people who fly into Montana on private jets - to which the degraded Gallatin bears mute but tragic evidence.

This op-ed was originally published at

George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana's longest-running columnist.