Missouri River basin receives poor grades for water supply

Water has always been a precious commodity, but drought-caused shortages have made it even more so. And yet, a recent national report card shows that Americans sometimes don’t take care of what little fresh water they have.

On Oct. 9, America’s Watershed Initiative, a collaborative of more than 400 businesses, agencies and science groups, issued the first 31-state report card for the waters that feed the Mississippi River. It’s not the kind of report card you’d want to bring home.

Overall, the Mississippi system received a “D+” grade. The report looks at six aspects of rivers, from people-focused attributes of economy, transportation, flood control and recreation to more natural characteristics of water supply and ecosystems.

Of the six aspects, water supply should receive more weight, because many of the other factors depend on ample streamflow. Also, a healthy ecosystem “contributes to achieving goals for water supply, flood protection, recreation, and the economy,” according to the report.

Montana’s rivers fall within the Missouri River basin, the largest of the seven basins rated. From the most remote headwaters of the upper Madison River to the end of the Missouri River, water travels more than 2,300 miles and tributaries flow in from nine states.

So the AWI couldn’t drill down to a fine scale when evaluating the Missouri Basin, and unique characteristics of any one state could be muted by more dominant characteristics of the others.

The Missouri Basin scored well in recreation due to the high number of hunting and fishing licenses available in the Western states. Unfortunately, it had the poorest grades of the seven basins for the important attributes of water supply and ecosystems.

The ecosystem rating includes animal and plant diversity, riparian habitat and wetlands. Connectivity between lakes, wetlands and rivers is also important but it’s often eliminated when land is converted to agriculture or subdivisions or reservoirs are built.

The Missouri basin received “C” grades for living resources, water quality and habitat but earned an “F” for having lost more wetlands than the other basins put together. Between 2006 and 2011, the Missouri Basin lost almost 3 percent of its wetlands.

As the ratings for economy, transportation and flood control improve, the ecosystem grade often falls. So the challenge is to find a better balance, the report said.

In the subject area of water supply, the Missouri Basin received “D” grades for water treatment and water depletion.

The grades for water treatment were based on water treatment plants that had no violations of contaminant or residual disinfectant levels in 2013.

However, the bar was set high. A state with 96 percent or less of its population served by water treatment facilities without treatment violations was considered failing.

With enough funding, states and towns can rapidly improve water treatment, but water depletion can spell long-term disaster. For example, California has depleted so much of its groundwater that the Earth’s crust is collapsing in spots, and scientists say it will take decades to replenish the aquifers, if ever.

In the Missouri Basin, the “D” grade for water depletion reflects the fact that in many areas, people are already using more water annually than a basin can provide. This is why several river basins in Montana are closed to new water rights.

With climate change, droughts can further limit the amount of water entering a basin, causing depletion to accelerate.

Some of the big water users are agriculture and municipalities, but now there’s the added demand coming from oil and gas fracking operations.

And while some communities use surface water, groundwater is being exploited to a greater extent as more homes are built with individual wells. Groundwater and surface water are connected in many areas so river flows can drop if too much groundwater is pumped out. This report didn’t look at groundwater but indicated groundwater sustainability would be considered in the future.

“These growing demands combine with an aging water treatment and supply infrastructure to put unprecedented pressure on water resources. In the future, there must be an integrated management approach that assures that water supplies support society’s needs and opportunities in a balanced manner throughout the watershed,” the report concluded.

But an integrated approach to water management will be a difficult sell, if the current struggle over new federal guidelines is any indication.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have tried to refine the definition of the Waters Of the U.S. after the Supreme Court said it went to far in one case and not far enough in another.

The new definition would protect some connectivity by including ephemeral and seasonal streams, but some agricultural producers have opposed the rule. They’re worried it would affect their ditches although the EPA has said it wouldn’t apply to agricultural irrigation.

Many states have sued to stop the new rule, and a week ago, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a nationwide stay while the rule works its way through the courts.

So it’s not likely that states can cooperate sufficiently to bring the Mississippi Basin better grades in the near future.