Nutrient pollution in the U.S. calls for urgent action

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By Ephraim King, Ellen Gilinsky, Marcia Willhite, Jill Jonas and Jim Taft

Nitrogen and phosphorus, two chemicals that healthy plants need to grow, can, in excess amounts, cause serious problems for the water we swim in, fish in and drink. And, despite our collective best efforts, the problem is not getting better. As the United States population expands, nutrient pollution from urbanization and stormwater runoff, municipal wastewater discharges, air deposition and agricultural livestock and row-crop activities is expected to grow as well. Increased public health risks and treatment costs from contamination of drinking water supplies, in particular, is a major concern. Nationally, nutrient pollution is one of the top causes of water quality impairment and is linked to over 14,000 water segments in the U.S. listed as impaired. Over two million acres of lakes and reservoirs across the country are impaired and not meeting the standards set for those water bodies due to excess nutrients. Seventy-eight percent of the assessed continental U.S. coastal areas exhibit symptoms of eutrophication (i.e., too much nitrogen and phosphorus). The sidebar illustrates numerous well-documented impacts from this pollution.

The spreading environmental degradation associated with excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the nation’s waters has been studied and documented extensively. The costs of these impacts across the country have not been comprehensively estimated, but we know they’re enormous. The Chesapeake Bay is a national example of research, information collection, analysis, voluntary partnerships, stakeholder involvement, extensive outreach and collaboration, and a collective investment of over $10 billion that, to date, has achieved only about 27 percent of the water quality targets for dissolved oxygen, water clarity and chlorophyll-a. The estimated remaining cost of restoration for the Chesapeake Bay exceeds $25 billion.

EPA and the states recognize the need to take action

In October 2008, state and EPA water quality and drinking water directors and national program managers formed a State-EPA Nutrient Innovations Task Group (Task Group) to review past nutrient control efforts and evaluate the potential for creating a new combination of existing tools and innovative approaches for addressing nutrient pollution. The Task Group recognized that eutrophication and nutrient overloading are significant environmental problems, not just for aquatic resources but also for drinking water supplies. The Task Group identified and framed key nutrient issues and options on how to improve nutrient pollution prevention and reduction at the state and national level. The Task Group’s recent report presents a summary of scientific evidence and analysis that characterizes the scope of nutrient sources and impacts. Key findings include

  • The problem of nutrient pollution is nationally significant, expanding and likely to substantially accelerate.
  • Knowledge, collaboration and substantial financial incentives, alone, are failing and will continue to fail at the state-wide and national level without greater focus and a common framework of responsibility and accountability for all point and non-point sources.
  • Current tools—such as numeric nutrient criteria for waterways, water quality assessments and listings of impaired waters, urban stormwater controls, wastewater treatment plant nutrient limits and animal feedlot controls—are underutilized and lack coordination.
  • Current regulations address certain sources (e.g., municipal sewage treatment) to the exclusion of others (e.g., row crop agriculture).
  • Specific aspects of state non-point source programs have been highly successful in addressing individual sources of nutrients, but broader application has been undercut by the absence of a common multi-state framework of mandatory point and non-point source accountability within and across watersheds.


Task Group recommendations

The Task Group believes that a coordinated and innovative synthesis of existing regulatory authorities and voluntary tools must be used across all sources and sectors of nutrient pollution. The Task Group made these primary recommendations:

  • Use Existing Tools: The federal government and states have a suite of existing tools that could be used more effectively. Some tools are only partially utilized and others could be expanded in scope.
  • Hold Pollution Source Accountable: A national framework of accountability for non-point sources is necessary to make significant and essential difference.
  • Explore and Use Innovative Tools: Broader reliance on incentives, trading and corporate stewardship within a multi-state framework of public transparency, common responsibility and point/non-point source accountability for meeting water quality and drinking water goals is needed.


Call to action

Combating the challenge of widespread nutrient pollution will require a renewed emphasis on prevention and a profound change in how we share accountability and responsibility between sources, within watersheds and across state lines. The Task Group believes that national leadership is vital to supporting and requiring a more consistent and fuller utilization of existing tools from state to state and source to source. Establishment of a cross-state enforceable framework of responsibility and accountability for all point and non-point pollution sources is central to assuring balanced and equitable upstream and downstream environmental protection.

Innovation in the context of nutrient pollution means acting on what we know, fully utilizing the tools we have, exploring new authorities that we need, and demanding of each other stronger multi-sector cross-state accountability and support for a joint commitment to environmental protection, public health and shared economic opportunities.

Next steps

We all agree that a suite of state and federal actions need to take place. Some of the first things to do are as follows:

  • Better Engage Agricultural Community: The agricultural community is doing a lot already, but can do more through a combination of voluntary, incentive-based programs, as well as, where appropriate, regulatory approaches. Having a strong farm economy and clean water are not mutually exclusive. We need to work together, developing incentive-based programs to support farmers in reducing nutrients, while at the same time considering “precision regulations.” Rather than sweeping, broad-based regulations, we need to target problem areas and practices to protect our health, economy and environment.
  • Better Use of Non-point Source Tools: We need to build on methods and practices that have been proven to be effective and also work on ways to develop enforceable alternative accountability frameworks or provide “reasonable assurance” that non-point pollution source controls are achieving desired results.


More details about these suggested next steps will be provided by the Task Group in the near future. The Task Group report can be found online at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience.

 

Sidebar 1: Documented impacts of nutrient pollution

  • Disinfection by-product and methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome)
  • Co-occuring contaminants (pathogens, pesticides, industrial chemicals)
  • Toxic algal blooms (neurotoxins, paralytic and diarrhetic effects)
  • Increased treatment costs
  • Recreation and tourism economic impacts
  • Widespread water-quality impairments
  • Low dissolved oxygen levels (hypoxia/anoxia)
  • Decreased species diversity and increased species vulnerability
  • Significant habitat loss (seagrasses and submerged aquatic vegetation)

Sidebar 2: Examples of recent key reports on nutrient pollution

  • EPA SAB: “Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: An Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences, and Management Options” (USEPA, 2009)
  • EPA SAB: “Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico” (USEPA, 2007c)
  • NRC: “Mississippi River Water Quality and the Clean Water Act: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities” (NRC, 2008)
  • NRC: “Urban Stormwater Management in the United States Draft” (NRC, 2008b)
  • EPA: “National Coastal Condition Report III” (USEPA, 2008)
  • EPA: “Wadeable Streams Assessment” (USEPA, 2006b)
  • NOAA: “Effects of Nutrient Enrichment in the Nation’s Estuaries: A Decade of Change” (Bricker et al, 2007)

 

The above article was jointly authored by representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Ephraim King, Office of Science and Technology); the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Admini­strators (Ellen Gilinsky, Marcia Willhite); and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (Jill Jonas, Jim Taft).

 

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