Lolo Peak fire

A wall of flames hundreds of feet high burns on a ridge above Rowan Road south of Lolo just after midnight on Aug. 17. 

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

The images of flooding in Texas, devastated communities in Florida, and widespread destruction in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands are front-page news. Here in Montana, after a parched summer of fires, concerns about flooding seem like another world away. And yet, last month, local climate scientists have sounded the alarm.

Authors of our statewide climate assessment warn that rapid snowmelt will push our rivers to further extremes. Increased runoff will cause more flooding during spring thaw, like the tragic 2011 Musselshell River flood, and will leave less water available for the dry summer months.

Scientists from across the country agree that climate change will only intensify extreme weather events, like hurricanes, as well as extreme spring flood events. So what lessons can we learn from these tragedies?

Now, more than ever, we need to do more to protect our communities. We need to make them less susceptible to flooding, sewage overflows, and leaks from toxic waste sites, and of course we need to prevent even more intense global warming-fueled extreme weather in the future.

Unfortunately, rather than protecting our most vulnerable communities, budget proposals on the table in Washington, D.C., right now threaten key programs that protect our state from storm-related impacts.

According to analysis by Environment Montana, one in four Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund site, the most toxic waste sites in the country. Montana has 18 such sites, at least half of which directly impact surface water vulnerable to flooding. The Superfund program is tasked with cleaning up these sites, responding to environmental crises, and protecting the public from hazardous substances, but the Trump administration has proposed cutting the Superfund program by nearly one-third, which would put more Montanans at risk from hazardous substances.

While we do everything in our power to cut the pollution that will fuel even more extreme weather in the future, we need a budget that supports programs that can shelter us from the coming storms.

As a former environmental attorney, I’ve seen the danger of cutting these programs firsthand. I once toured a poorly supervised coal fly ash site where filthy, orange sludge trickled from an overtopped lagoon into the irrigation ditch on a neighboring cattle farm. As we worked to negotiate a settlement between the property owners, our clients were just one flood event away from losing their water source and the value of their ranch forever.

When the government tries to cut corners, real people can get hurt.

Montana’s best defenses against severe flooding need funding increases, not targeted cuts. Now, more than ever, we need to invest in making our communities more resilient. All Montanans are at risk if we let President Trump and some in Congress dismantle water and wetland protections and continue to shortchange the cleanup of Superfund sites and our wastewater infrastructure.

In the past weeks, we have seen just how powerfully extreme weather can reshape our lives. If there’s one lesson these storms have shown us, it’s that Montana deserves more protection going forward, not less. We’re counting on U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to pass a budget that puts our families’ health and community's safety first; one that will give Montanans more shelter from the storms ahead.

Skye Borden of Missoula is the state director for Environment Montana.

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