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Ballot measure I-191 carries unintended consequences

by Jill Cohenour
| June 21, 2022 12:00 AM

As a member of the Montana Legislature’s bipartisan Water Policy Interim Committee, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to learn more about proposed ballot Initiative 191 at a recent hearing. I-191 seeks to designate over 100 miles of the Madison and Gallatin Rivers, and their tributaries, as Outstanding Resource Water (ORW), a designation only found in National Parks and wilderness areas.

At the hearing, we heard from dozens of Montanans, including policy experts and leaders from top economic sectors including agriculture, recreation, conservation, tourism, contracting, and many more. Those testifying shared concerns about the negative impact I-191 would have on Montanans.

While the proposed ballot measure in theory seeks to protect our waterways, it was abundantly clear that I-191 would cut important regulatory corners and would lead to unintended consequences. I am particularly concerned about two.

Montanans are currently facing two crises across our state: an ongoing drought and a housing shortage. Among the many unintended consequences, I-191 would exacerbate both, in one area of our state.

First, I-191 would prohibit the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from issuing ANY new discharge permits on these stretches that would change water quality. While the intent to protect these water resources is laudable, the lack of understanding of actual on the ground impacts could be devastating. In drought conditions, water can and is released from storage to help rivers stay alive. Due to non-degradation requirements of an ORW, there would be no ability to provide for the needs of a waterway during the dry time of the year.

Beyond water flows, respected state and local conservation groups testified that their ongoing habitat and river restoration work on these stretches would actually be stopped because of the ballot measure’s prohibition on temporary water changes. After serving for years on the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee, I am aware of the impact the lack of late season cold water flows is having on fish habitat, yet this measure would compound the drought’s impact. Worse, the ballot measure process would entirely skirt the current stringent DEQ process in place to review designations, including the required Environmental Impact Statement. It’s clear this initiative would prevent good work intended to improve water quality from happening.

In addition to conservation concerns, the committee also heard from housing advocates who stated I-191 would slow the current progress being made in Gallatin County on workforce housing, and ultimately prevent more housing from being built. Without the ability to bring water to housing projects, there will be no new workforce housing in these areas. More barriers to housing is the last thing we need.

These are only two of the numerous concerns we heard at the hearing.

Ultimately, a bipartisan majority of the Water Policy Interim Committee voted to oppose ballot measure I-191. I-191 is not the right solution. I would encourage Montana voters to learn more about I-191’s unintended consequences and oppose it as well.

Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, is the Montana Senate Minority Leader.

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