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Protect clean water, protect our economy
Guest Column

Protect clean water, protect our economy

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The recent Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water Rule affirming that headwater streams and tributaries feeding Montana's rivers merit protection from pollution is critical because it helps put money in the pockets of Montanans and strengthens our economy. Unfortunately this common-sense rule is under attack in Congress and elsewhere, and Montanans must loudly defend it.

We’re concerned about the attacks because our businesses, our employees and the taxes we generate depend on clean water. Yet opponents of the rule are ignoring our contributions. Each year nearly $4 billion new dollars come into the Montana economy from visitors to our state. According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, angling annually generates $907 million for our economy, much of it from nonresidents.

Most of the 11 million visitors to Montana each year drive our roads, generating significant gas taxes that support the Montana companies who maintain our state's highways. Many visitors come here for our clean, clear rivers and high mountain lakes and streams. Such high-quality waters do not exist in the home states of many of our visitors. Montana’s tourism industry employs around 45,000 people. The small business owners supporting these jobs pay taxes that support schools and utility services that help lessen the load of tax payments of others in their communities. Without protections embodied in the Clean Water Rule clarifying that headwater streams and tributaries are the source of critical late-season flows for our rivers and spawning habitat for our wild trout, the tourism economy will suffer. And so will Montana’s economy.

In this year, one of the driest on record when rivers suffered and irrigators scrambled for water, it has made no sense to us that anybody, let alone some of our political leaders, would be fighting to increase opportunities for polluting our diminishing sources of water -- sources that are essential for drinking water, agriculture and tourism. Yet, that is exactly what is happening.

The U.S. Senate recently considered measures to toss the Clean Water Rule. One died, one lives. The only member of Montana’s delegation opposing these ill-conceived measures was Sen. Jon Tester. Some state’s attorneys general, including Montana’s, have gone to court to prevent this protective rule from being implemented. This is disappointing because this is the elected position that is supposed to uphold Montana’s Constitution, including our right to a clean and healthful environment.

All Montanans who rely on clean water for their livelihoods, as well as for drinking water, should oppose the attempts to kill the rule. And they should demand Montana's full congressional delegation, governor and attorney general do the same.

Forty-three years ago a huge, bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act. For more than 30 years it provided protection for the headwater streams and wetlands that opponents of the rules now want to open up for pollution and dredging and filling. After the U.S. Supreme Court in two rulings confused the picture over whether headwaters and a few wetlands deserve protection, industries demanded clarity. And the EPA provided it with the rule. Now these industries and some politicians want to return to the uncertain legal atmosphere they said they disdained. Montanans should know this: The rule merely ensures that these waters get the protection they once had and what they -- and we -- deserve. For the sake of Montana’s economic well-being, our political leaders need to understand this.

Chris Schustrom is the volunteer chairman of Montana Trout Unlimited and co-owner of an inn in Whitefish. Juanita Vero runs a generations-old family guest ranch in the Blackfoot Valley. Eddie Olwell is a long-time fishing outfitter in the Bitterroot Valley. Ric Smith owns a real estate business in Polson that depends on clean water.

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