Rancher questions Tongue water quality
Tongue River rancher Mark Fix got his barley planted early this year and hooked up his circle pivot for irrigation. The barley needs moisture to get started, he said. But Fix was reluctant to irrigate with Tongue River water.
"The way the water quality was, I was a little afraid to put it on," he said.
Fix, who is past chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council and chair of its coalbed methane task force, said there were significant increases in measures of salts in the river during March and April as recorded by a monitor in the Tongue at the Wyoming border near Decker.
Fix believes that the water was exceeding Montana’s federally approved nondegradation rules for indicators of salinity. And he suspects that discharges to tributaries of the Tongue in Wyoming could be the cause.
Then late last week, southeastern Montana received moisture from a snowstorm along with some rain.
While the rain may have eased Fix’s immediate worries, the issue remains. Fix outlined his concerns in a letter last week to Richard Opper, director of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Art Hayes Jr., president of the Tongue River Water Users Association, also has contacted DEQ and has told his irrigators that it could take several weeks before fresh water from runoff into the Tongue reservoir improves water quality.
DEQ, however, said NPRC is misunderstanding how the department administers the nondegradation rules and that it is comfortable with Wyoming’s approach to permitting pending a legal challenge to Montana’s standards in federal court.
Nevertheless, DEQ has contacted Wyoming about the high salinity levels.
Art Compton, DEQ’s director of the Planning, Prevention and Assistance Division, said this week that for the past two years, Montana has checked with Wyoming after seeing above-normal levels of salinity for the flow rates in the Tongue in the spring.
Wyoming has found nothing in its water management that would cause the salinity other than perhaps a first flush of salts from stream banks, Compton said. As flows increase and stabilize with runoff, salinity decreases, he said.
Salinity concentrations in the Tongue this past week have decreased to nearly half of what they were in late March, while flows have almost doubled, according to information from the U.S. Geological Survey monitor at the border.
The concerns of NPRC and the irrigators center on water quality standards they supported to protect rivers and streams in southeastern Montana from discharges of water produced by drilling for coalbed methane. The natural gas is produced by drilling into coal seams and pumping to the surface large volumes of groundwater to release the gas. The water in the northern portion of the Powder River Basin tends to run high in sodium, which can damage certain plants and soils.
In 2006, the Montana Board of Environmental Review designated salinity indicators as harmful and applied a nondegradation policy that requires developers to get approval if they want to pollute or degrade rivers and streams. The nondegradation policy protects high-quality water, like the Tongue River.
In 2003, the board adopted numeric standards for sodium and salt indicators but exempted them from its nondegradation policy. The 2006 action repealed that exemption and narrowed the opportunity to discharge salty water into rivers and streams. The numeric standards and the numeric nondegradation limits are separate but complementary components of the state’s water quality program.
Developers and Wyoming are challenging Montana’s standards in federal court in Wyoming. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency in February approved Montana’s 2006 nondegradation rules. EPA’s approval makes Montana’s rules applicable to adjacent states under the Clean Water Act.
Compton said the nondegradation rules are used in calculating discharge limits in permits.
"It is strictly permit math," he said.
None of Montana’s three permits for coalbed methane discharges includes nondegradation limits for salinity because they were issued before the rule was adopted, he said. But those limits will be added upon renewal and will be in new permits.
Compliance with nondegradation limits in the Tongue will be an issue if a developer’s discharge exceeds the limit set in a permit, Compton said, but "we’re not there yet."
While the border monitor showed higher levels of salinity before runoff, the levels were within the numeric standard, Compton said. "That is legal," he said.
Wyoming will not be issuing permits that exceed Montana’s nondegradation limits and has assured Montana it will not worsen the Tongue’s water quality while the legal dispute continues in court, Compton said.
"Wyoming has been very cautious on the Tongue," he said. "We’ve made it clear to Wyoming their permit math has to be driven by nondegradation criteria as well."
Wyoming’s approach is the most stringent application of nondegradation rules, Compton said.
Wyoming also has had few direct discharges to the Tongue. Most of its water management is through reservoirs in tributary channels, Compton said. But, he added, there is much to learn about the effects of impounding water. "We’re concerned about that," he said.
By CLAIR JOHNSON
Of The Billings Gazette Staff