Water Policy Interim Committee Meeting

The Water Policy Interim Committee recently completed two days of meetings in Helena, and covered many topics of interest to Conservation Districts. The agenda and other background materials may be seen at http://leg.mt.gov/content/Committees/Interim/2015-2016/Water-Policy/Meetings/July-2016/july-2016.asp    In addition, I attached the agenda below. If you want to see the handouts provided at this meeting, it’ll take a few days from today for them to be uploaded to this website. In addition, I believe that a video of the speakers will be available on the site.
As the decades advance, this committee will be one of the most important bodies in the State of Montana.
I’ll cover the topics in no particular order.
  1. As you know, MACD participates as a voting member of the Nutrient Work Group. The group worked over many years to develop numeric nutrient standards for Montana waters. It was a long process, with many disagreements, but we came to a place where all could agree that this may work for our state. The process was sent to and eventually approved by the EPA. The approved process includes a variance rule, whereby most dischargers are given time, some up to twenty years, to meet the numeric standards . This would allow the use of removal technologies to improve and become less costly, and allow time for nonpoint sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to be better addressed. Twelve general variances have been issued since early 2015.
  2. As somewhat of an experiment, DEQ is currently working with the town of Joliet on their lagoon. The goal is to enable small communities that use wastewater lagoons to move towards compliance with ammonia, total phosphorus, and total nitrogen standards without conversion to mechanical facilities. Should the Joliet project succeed, it has major implications for our small communities. In addition, there may be application for livestock operations.  This could be win-win-win for Montana.
  3. A monkey wrench has been thrown into the DEQ search for workable nutrient management solutions. In May, 2016, EPA was sued in federal court over its approval of the variances. DEQ will soon petition the court to intervene in the case on the side of EPA. I heard in the hallways that several industry groups will also petition in support of the variances.
  4. DEQ is currently working on developing standards for large rivers, including the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
  5. Understanding nutrient standards is important to Districts because of our involvement with water, with livestock, and with farmers. In addition, as the technology advances, there may be some opportunity for land owners to participate in some manner.
  6. DEQ provided a map that indicates the TMDL priority areas. Please see http://deq.mt.gov/water/wqpb//TMDL/TPAmap   DEQ has their TMDL worked planned out until 2022.
  7. The Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology made two presentations: one about their surface water assessment and monitoring program, and one about their ground water investigation projects. At the end of the two day meeting, WPIC asked for a bill draft to provide $250,000 per year for each program, or $1 million over the biennium. This is what’s called a “dog and cat” bill, as it is not in the Executive budget nor the Board of Regents budget.
  8. WPIC heard presentations from the Clark Fork River Basin Task Force and the Upper Clark Fork River Basin Steering Committee. Somewhat similar to our two river councils in that they cover a river basin, these statutorily created entities are in a desperate search for funding and coordination. WPIC will be looking at combining the two entities and searching for a funding source. They asked that Conservation Districts be in the mix, but they did not specify what exactly that role would or could be. This issue will have to be monitored closely.
  9. WPIC asked about watershed funding in the DNRC budget. Mark Bostrom delivered a handout with the details about this program.
  10. DNRC provided a water supply update. In 2015 and 2016 the Spring runoff was 2-3 weeks early. Many reservoirs were 90-100% full this Spring, but are being drawn down quickly. Some streams are currently at 10% of median flows.
  11. The state’s drought response plan will be updated before May, 2017.
  12. WPIC was updated on the Main Street Montana Project. See http://mainstreetmontanaproject.com/  According to the website, “Governor Bullock initiated the Main Street Montana Project in early 2013…  The goal of the project was and is to create a dynamic private-public partnership to build and implement a business plan for Montana by Montanans.  …to engage in a process of soliciting broad input and engagement from the private sector, as well as conducting research regarding Montana’s economy – its strengths and challenges. More than 3,000 Montanans provided input through participating in a series of regional roundtable meetings and completing surveys.”  Conservation Districts are mentioned under recommendation 4 of the Food and Agriculture KIN Recommendations. Specifically, “Opening the availability of conservation districts water reservations and new water right permits where water is available.” Former Senator Jim Peterson from Buffalo made the presentation about this issue to the WPIC.  MACD will continue to monitor this and see how and where it plays out.
  13. SJ2 required a study of the possibility of the State of Montana assuming the US Army Corp’s of Engineer’s 404 permit system. As you know, Conservation Districts continue to be mentioned as playing some sort of role should Montana assume the responsibility for this permit. WPIC reviewed a DRAFT report prepared by their staff. The report may be seen here: http://leg.mt.gov/content/Committees/Interim/2015-2016/Water-Policy/Meetings/July-2016/SJ2DRAFTreport.pdf      I urge you to read this report, as Districts may be voting on this issue at Convention this Fall. The DRAFT report will be edited to include five options: 1) Issue the final report and conclude the SJ2 study with no action. 2) Issue the final report and ask DEQ to apply for federal funds to continue studying this issue. 3) Issue the final report and recommend that the issue be studied again in the next interim (NOTE: This may be due to the thinking that the US Supreme Court will be making a ruling on the new Clean Water Act rules by next summer. Hopefully, jurisdictional issues would be clearer at that time.) 4) Issue the final report and direct the Legislative Council to appoint an interim committee study of federal Section 404 program. 5) Issue the final report and draft legislation directing DEQ to assume the federal Section 404 program, assess fees for 404 permits, and establish a work-share agreement with the state’s 58 conservation districts. Once the final DRAFT report is out, there will be opportunity for public comment. We need to be strategic in how we comment on the five options. NB: I’m involved at the federal level with this issue, and from what I see this is a long way from settlement – perhaps 2-3 years.
  14. As noted in the latest edition of The Montana Conservationist, WPIC also considered a number of bills dealing with water rights. The draft bills may be seen at http://leg.mt.gov/content/Committees/Interim/2015-2016/Water-Policy/Meetings/July-2016/july-2016.asp
The WPIC is relatively new committee and still figuring out their reach. As the decades advance, this committee will be one of the most important bodies in the State of Montana. MACD should always have a close relationship with this committee.
Because of my job with you, I must listen to the national news every day to see what might impact agriculture and natural resource conservation. I am saddened by the rancor and negativism that pervades the media. However, after spending two days with the WPIC, my faith in our political leaders moves back towards the positive. Over the two days of this meeting, I watched as both parties discussed many topics, agreeing on the vast majority of issues. When there were disagreements, the thoughtfulness, professionalism, and cordiality of our lawmakers was a fine example of Montanans at work, looking out for each other and trying their best to do the right thing. I was proud of them.

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