Rules and Regs: Clean Water Boosters Sue to Stop Montana Water Standard

Last spring, the Montana Legislature abolished numeric standards for phosphorus and nitrogen pollution and replaced them with a “narrative standard,” which generally describes desired conditions for a waterbody free of pollution. The law took effect March 1, and on March 24 Upper Missouri Waterkeeper filed a federal suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to act. 

In its suit, Waterkeeper argues that EPA should have taken formal action to approve or disapprove Montana’s change in standards, as required by federal law. Waterkeeper also says the new standard fails to adequately protect water quality. 

“Under the Clean Water Act, states can’t lawfully roll back science-based standards that protect waterway health — as Montana has done — and put forth unproven and ineffective pollution control programs that let polluters off the hook for doing their fair share to protect water quality,” Guy Alsentzer, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper executive director, said in a press release.

Instead of using numbers, the law mentions regulating discharges of phosphorus or nitrogen that create conditions toxic to human, animal, plant and aquatic life; create conditions that produce undesirable aquatic life; or cause measurable changes in aquatic life. 

When the bill was passed last year and signed into law, Alsentzer said standards relying on, for example, the presence of algae blooms are reactive instead of proactive. “It’s much better economics to keep something clean than it is to pay to fix it when it’s polluted,” he said, according to the Missoula Current.

After the lawsuit was filed, state Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, and one of the sponsors of the new law, said Montanans could face higher water and sewer costs to pay for treatment, according to the Montana Free Press. “We haven’t even finished writing the rules to implement (Senate Bill) 358, so it’s kind of disappointing that Waterkeeper chooses to go to court instead of sitting down and working around the table with the rest of us,” Esp said.

New York

Suffolk County is considering formation of a water district to help fund advanced onsite systems. There is no formal proposal yet, but the question may come before voters in November, reports the Shelter Island Reporter

In discussion is an annual $60 fee for all property owners. The money would form the basis of a fund for onsite system replacements. Fund money would be split with 75% dedicated to system installations and 25% to infrastructure for the systems. Areas of the county with onsite systems would have the option of joining the fund.

The county occupies the eastern tip of Long Island, and for several years it and its municipal governments have been passing laws to require nitrogen-reducing onsite systems. Hundreds of thousands of Suffolk County homes are served by cesspools, and those have been linked to nitrogen pollution and algae blooms along the county’s Atlantic Ocean coast.

North Carolina

A staff shortage has severely delayed onsite system permits in Moore County. The problem is a shortage of people in the county’s sewage site division, reports The Pilot in Southern Pines. Four of seven positions are vacant.

Coupled with rapid growth all over the county, this means applicants may wait up to six months for a permit, said Matt Garner, interim director of the county Health Department. Permits are typically issued in 30 to 90 days. 

The county has a population of about 103,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Population increased about 3% from 2020 to 2021, and 13% from 2010 to 2020.


Wayne County stopped work on its onsite ordinance because of uncertainty over action by the state Legislature. House Enrolled Act 1245, signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, changes the rules for counties. It prevents a county health department from denying some onsite permits if they have been approved by an engineer, Christine Stinson, executive director of the county health department, told the county’s board of health. 

She said the Legislature’s original bill did not stir local opposition, reported the Richmond Palladium Item, but subsequent amendments did. One, which was removed before the final vote, would have forbidden a county from having an onsite ordinance more restrictive than the state’s. 

In February, Stinson gave the health board a proposed onsite ordinance for consideration, but she said it is now on hold until there is more clarity about what state government has done.


As it has for several years, the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District can help people with the cost of replacing or repairing failing onsite systems. Wendee Dodds, natural resources specialist/operations manager for the district, announced $150,000 in funding from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. 

To be eligible for help, household income must be less than 300% of federal 2020 poverty guidelines. But the amount of assistance varies in relation to how high household income is, according to information on the district’s website. 

For example, a household of one to four people at 300% of the poverty guideline ($78,600) qualifies for assistance equal to 50% of project cost. At 100% of the poverty guideline ($26,200), that household is eligible to receive 100% of the cost. Project cost includes permit fees, soil evaluation and engineering work in addition to the system itself. 


Watts township supervisors will decide whether residents will be required to have their onsite systems pumped regularly. A proposed ordinance would require pumping every three years and is part of the township’s Act 537 plan. Those are required by the state to govern onsite inspections, enforcement and other matters, reported the Perry County Times in Mechanicsburg. 

If the ordinance is passed, groups of 222 systems would be inspected annually. Systems at newly constructed properties would have to comply with inspection rules three years after the first use. A fee of $33 per property would be assessed to cover the county’s cost of overseeing the program. 


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