September 23, 2013
Dead Zone Decision: EPA Must Act on Mississippi River Pollution
The U.S. District Court in Eastern Louisiana ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday to determine within six months whether to set new limits on the pollution that is fueling the dangerous algae growth choking the waters throughout the Mississippi River basin, the Gulf of Mexico and waters across the country. Attorneys at the Natural Resources Defense Council led the suit, filed on behalf of several conservation groups and based on longstanding efforts by the Mississippi River Collaborative to break decades of inaction from the federal government on the issue of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. These chemicals fuel the formation of the Gulf Dead Zone and toxic algae blooms and cause damage to drinking water supplies.
“For too long, EPA has stood on the sidelines while our nation’s waters slowly choke on algae,” said NRDC Senior Attorney Ann Alexander. “They have acknowledged the problem for years, but could not muster the gumption to address it. The court is telling the Agency that it is time to stop hiding from the issue and make a decision already.”
Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage plants, urban stormwater systems and agricultural operations fuels the growth of algae in waterways around the country. Algae, in turn, chokes out other aquatic life and can rob water of the oxygen that fish and shellfish need to survive. One of the most devastating consequences of this pollution has been the emergence of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – an area the size of Connecticut where algal growth has driven levels of oxygen at the sea floor so low that virtually nothing can live there. Similar issues are driving the dramatic collapse of Lake Erie and threatening other portions of the Great Lakes.
The suit, filed a year and a half ago, challenged EPA’s denial of the Mississippi River Collaborative’s 2008 petition to EPA asking it to establish quantifiable standards and cleanup plans for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The suit charged that EPA had unlawfully refused to respond to the question posed to it, which is whether such federal action is necessary to comply with the Clean Water Act. The court agreed with plaintiffs, holding that the Agency’s refusal to provide a direct answer was unlawful.
The decision does not tell the Agency how to address the problem, only to make a decision on the issue. However, EPA has repeatedly acknowledged the severity of the problem and stated that federal intervention is appropriate because states are not doing enough to solve it.
Plaintiffs in the suit included Gulf Restoration Network, Waterkeeper Alliance, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Iowa Environmental Council, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Prairie Rivers Network, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Sierra Club, and NRDC. Attorneys at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, NRDC, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center brought the case.
Following are comments from groups involved in the suit:
Susan Heathcote, water program director of the Iowa Environmental Council in Des Moines, Iowa, said, “Lake recreation is a big business in Iowa—generating $1.2 billion in annual spending and supporting 14,000 jobs. Yet Iowa’s lakes have among the highest nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the world, and consequences of this problem, including algae blooms and poor water clarity, have already landed 79 of the state’s top recreational lakes on Iowa’s impaired waters list. In addition, harmful algae blooms led to two dozen advisories against swimming at Iowa’s state park beaches this summer due to high toxin levels that threaten the health of people and pets.”
“It should be apparent that pollution limits are essential to controlling pollution” said Kelly Foster, Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, “With this decision, we are hopeful that EPA will finally do what it has long known is necessary to address the Gulf Dead Zone and the staggering number of other fisheries, water supplies and recreational waters decimated by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution across the nation.”
"EPA must address the nutrient issue, and we appreciate the court's ruling to that affect," said Judy Petersen, Executive Director at Kentucky Waterways Alliance. "The Army Corps of Engineers monitored Kentucky's recreational lakes for Harmful Algae Blooms for the first time this past summer and recorded excessive numbers throughout much of the summer at several lakes. Nutrient pollution is clearly just as much of a problem in Kentucky as it is in other Mississippi River Basin states and down in the Gulf, and EPA must address it."
Kris Sigford, Water Quality Director at Minnesota Center for the Environment notes, "We are gratified that EPA cannot duck this important decision, and hope that EPA takes quick and decisive action to control widespread nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River. In Minnesota, over one-quarter of our streams and rivers are polluted by nitrogen in excess of safe drinking water standards, and the trend is increasing rapidly."
Bradley Klein, attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center added, “This isn't just about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Algae blooms threaten the Great Lakes--and smaller waterways across the nation are being impacted by this huge problem. Hopefully EPA will move in the right direction on this because until we deal with the sources, which are sometimes thousands of miles away, we cannot get to the problem."
July 29, 2013
Massive Gulf Dead Zone signifies lack of action by EPA, states
This week, scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium completed their annual measurement of the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone, which measured 5,800 square miles, larger than the state of Connecticut.
The Dead Zone is an area of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River which is oxygen-deprived due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution coming primarily from agricultural sources throughout the Basin as far north as the River’s source in Minnesota.
In addition to causing the Dead Zone in the Gulf, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is affecting waters throughout the Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries, threatening wildlife and recreation, and rendering drinking water unsafe.
“Record-high nitrate pollution levels in May through July have forced the City of Des Moines, Iowa to use a nitrate removal system and blend water from other sources just to deliver safe drinking water to over 500,000 Iowans,” said Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council, a member of the Mississippi River Collaborative.
Despite voluntary initiatives to reduce nutrient pollution which have been encouraged by EPA and other states, the Dead Zone has only grown bigger. This lack of effective action forced members of the Mississippi River Collaborative to file suit against EPA in 2012 in an attempt to get the agency to set and enforce numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
“EPA told states to develop numeric nitrogen and phosphorus limits 15 years ago,” stated Cynthia Sarthou, Executive Director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a Mississippi River Collaborative member organization. “EPA has since spent the last decade and a half repeatedly pushing back deadlines for reducing Dead Zone-causing pollution.”
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is a key concern for the Mississippi River Collaborative, a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers working to protect the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
The Mississippi River Collaborative is tracking reaction to this story online:
November 28, 2012
Mississippi River Collaborative Offers Principles to Shape Minnesota Agricultural Pollution Plan
CHAMPAIGN, IL-- In a letter to Minnesota’s Commissioner of Agriculture, members of the Mississippi River Collaborative offer 11 guiding principles essential to the state’s plan for reducing farm pollution impacts.
Minnesota is considering piloting a state agricultural water quality certification program where agricultural businesses, in exchange for implementing measures to reduce pollution to streams and lakes, would receive a state certification intended to shield them from regulation related to water quality standards.
The Mississippi River Collaborative, a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi River, calls on the Minnesota program to establish a strong and adaptable structure that keeps the focus on water quality improvements while calling on farmers to do their share to clean up the state’s waters.
The Mississippi River Collaborative’s guiding principles include setting goals, requiring measurable improvements in water quality, the establishment of clean water standards, farmer accountability, and a whole farm approach. The accompanying letter stresses that relying on voluntary measures funded by taxpayer dollars has fallen short in reducing pollution from farm businesses and resulted in “patchwork conservation.”
“Agriculture should not get a free pass on pollution,” said Dr. Stacy James, Water Resources Scientist with Illinois’ Prairie Rivers Network. “Proven strategies exist for keeping pollution out of rivers and streams, but relying on voluntary programs to implement them has yet to produce adequate results. We fear that the Minnesota effort will be yet another voluntary effort, so these principles are focused on creating a program that gets results.”
Members of the Mississippi River Collaborative representing states downstream from Minnesota weighed in with Minnesota because its developing program offers hope to help achieve cleaner waters in agricultural landscapes. The groups want the program to set and reach clean water goals, especially if it is used as a model for other states.
Agricultural pollution consisting primarily of nitrogen and phosphorus fuels the growth of algae in waters which disrupts aquatic food chains, depletes oxygen, and poses a public health risk. Streams and lakes throughout Minnesota and the nation suffer from pollution-fueled green slime and its effects. Downstream, one finds the nation’s most famous farm pollution disaster - the perennial Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico where thousands of square miles of the ocean are unable to support aquatic life each summer.
***THE DOCUMENT IS AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE.
May 10, 2012
Susan Heathcote of Iowa Environmental Council named 2012 National River Hero
Susan Heathcote, the Iowa Environmental Council’s water program director, has been chosen by her peers as a 2012 National River Hero in recognition of her career of successful advocacy for Iowa water quality improvement. Heathcote received the award during a ceremony Monday night at the national River Rally, an annual gathering of water advocates sponsored by the River Network and the Waterkeeper Alliance held this year in Portland, Oregon.
Iowa Environmental Council executive director Marian Riggs Gelb said the award is a fitting recognition of Heathcote’s work. “Iowa’s water quality challenges are significant and difficult to change, but Susan has succeeded again and again because she knows her fellow Iowans value clean water and expect public policy to reflect that fact,” Gelb said.
“At the same time, Susan works hard to consider opposing viewpoints and build consensus around solutions that are right for Iowa, and her willingness to do so has earned her the respect of her allies and opponents alike.”
Heathcote has worked for the Iowa Environmental Council for 16 years, spending most of that time overseeing the organization’s work on clean water issues. She has provided technical leadership for the Council on a number of issues, including agricultural nonpoint source pollution, livestock manure management, water quality monitoring, water quality standards, and restoration of impaired waters.
“Susan’s hard work and dedication have been at the core of many of the Council’s successes since the earliest days of the organization’s history,” Gelb said. These achievements include securing funds to close agricultural drainage wells, helping to found IOWATER, the state’s volunteer water monitoring program, and extending the protections of the federal Clean Water Act to thousands of additional miles of Iowa rivers and streams, among others.
“These victories are all meaningful individually, but when considered together, they show something bigger—how Iowans can come together and make progress toward protecting our natural resources. And that’s perhaps Susan’s biggest achievement—building a record of progress that inspires others to step forward and get involved,” Gelb said.
In addition, Heathcote’s expertise means she is frequently in demand for boards, expert panels, and other positions tasked with protecting water quality and natural resources in Iowa.
In 2007, she was appointed by Governor Culver to serve a four year term on the Environmental Protection Commission, which oversees environmental programs at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In July of 2011, Heathcote was invited to join a team of about 30 experts from across the US to serve as advisers for AGree, a bold new initiative created to develop solutions to improve agricultural productivity and environmental performance at the national and global levels.
Heathcote also volunteers her time locally. She served as coordinator of Polk County’s twice-annual water quality snapshot for 8 years, and is a founding board member of Iowa Rivers Revival, a nonprofit that advocates for the improvement and enjoyment of the state’s rivers.
April 17, 2012
EWG Releases Farm Bill Platform READ MORE
April 16, 2012
Tennessee Clean Water Network settles with the City of Memphis over Sanitary Sewer Overflows
Memphis TN – The Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN), United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) settled today with the City of Memphis (the City) to fix sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and foam discharges.
“We are very pleased with the results of the negotiation,” said Renée Victoria Hoyos, Executive Director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. “All parties worked hard to create a settlement that was fair that will lead to elimination of SSOs, better reporting and less floating foam.”
Through a series of file reviews and citizen complaints, TCWN discovered that the City reported 1,170 sewer overflows in a five year period. Local kayakers contacted TCWN with photos complaining of foam coming from the M.C. Stiles Sewage Treatment Plant floating down the Mississippi River. As a result, in December 2009 the TCWN filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the City for sanitary sewer overflows, visible floating foam, and other permit violations.
On Day 60, The USEPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation filed an enforcement action against the City of Memphis. TCWN intervened in the case to ensure that there was a citizen activist group at the table.
Under terms of the agreement the City of Memphis will assess 10% of the sewer system each year. In year 1, the City will concentrate on areas near Cypress and Cane Creeks where the system is the oldest and the creeks impaired for pathogens. In year 2, the City will concentrate on the Lick Creek and close-in areas due to basement backups. The City has also committed to three large infrastructure projects, including the Wolf River Interceptor where a failure there could cause a major SSO to the Wolf River.
The settlement will also require the City to have written policies and procedures for operation and maintenance activities.
One major problem identified in the consent decree was the disposal of fats, oil and grease (FOG) to the sewer system. The City has taken proactive measures to educate the public about FOG with billboards and other public education tools.
TCWN has expressed disappointment, though, about the City’s refusal to do a Supplemental Environmental Project. These projects can be performed in lieu of fines paid to the federal government and can assist communities most impacted by sewer overflows. Projects can range from low-interest loans to homeowners for repairs to lateral sewer lines or property acquisition to increase parkland. The City instead chose to pay a fine of $645,000 to the Department of Justice.
The City did agree to perform a “color study” to determine the source of color that was causing a color contrast into the Mississippi River from the M.C. Stiles Plant and partial GIS mapping of the sewer system. The City prefers to employ the use of a “Sewer Bible” - a paper copy of the sewer system that employees use to manually update repairs and maintenance. Cities of comparable size and smaller have moved to complete GIS mapping of the system to analyze their sewer system.
The public will have 30 days to review the consent decree. The City of Memphis will post all documents related to the settlement in a document repository on the City of Memphis website and copies will be available at the Central Library. If you see an SSO, please report it immediately to the Department of Public Works (901) 576-6742.
“The problem of sanitary sewer overflows is not just a Memphis problem,” said Ms. Hoyos. “These problems occur throughout Tennessee and the nation. Federal funding for infrastructure improvements has declined in recent years and municipalities are squeamish to raise fees to pay for needed repairs and maintenance. Until we see dedicated funding to maintain our sewage treatment plants, we will continue to have contamination of our streams, rivers, lakes and communities.”
March 14, 2012
Mississippi River Groups Hit EPA With Dual Legal Actions on Pollution that Fuels Gulf Dead Zone
(New Orleans, LA)— Today environmental groups challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) refusal to address a critical pollution problem it has acknowledged for decades.
The two legal actions filed today seek action from the agency on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which stimulates excessive growth of algae, kick-starting a biological process that severely depletes oxygen levels in aquatic ecosystems and chokes marine life. An enormous example of this problem is the “Dead Zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer.
In addition, toxic algae blooms result in fish kills, the death of livestock and pets, and damage to drinking water supplies. Addressing Dead Zone pollution is thus necessary to restore health to the Gulf of Mexico and upstream waters of the Mississippi River Basin.
“The ecology and economy of the Gulf of Mexico have paid the price for EPA’s endless dithering about Dead Zone pollution,” said Matt Rota, Director of Science and Water Policy with the non-profit Gulf Restoration Network. “The most meaningful action the EPA can take is to set limits on the amount of these pollutants allowed in the Mississippi River watershed so that the fish and the fisheries can recover.”
Members of the Mississippi River Collaborative, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, are challenging EPA’s denial of a 2008 petition to the agency asking EPA to establish quantifiable standards and cleanup plans for Dead Zone pollution. Separately, the conservation groups are seeking to compel EPA to finally respond to an even older petition – a 2007 request that EPA modernize its decades-old pollution standards for sewage treatment plants and include the Dead Zone pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus in those standards.
“Decisive EPA action on Dead Zone pollutants is a decade overdue,” said Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network. “Illinois is the biggest contributor of pollution that creates this yearly crisis. With little action coming from the state, we clearly need an external push to be a more responsible neighbor."
When scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium completed their annual measurement of the 2011 Gulf Dead Zone, it measured 6,765 square miles - larger than the state of Connecticut—and it is growing, having doubled in size since 1985. In the Gulf, the pollution harms the $2.8 billion fishing industry.
The unrelenting problem of excess nitrogen and phosphorous has also proven costly upstream. For example, seasonally the Raccoon and the Des Moines Rivers in Iowa carry excessive levels of nitrates, requiring special treatment before the water is safe enough for Des Moines-area residents to drink.
The EPA called on states in 1998 to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and promised to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003. Every state along the Mississippi River ignored that deadline, and so far, only Wisconsin and Minnesota have taken effective action on their state’s contributions to the problem.
EPA’s continued lack of leadership at a federal level is a serious problem because the Mississippi River flows through or forms the border of 10 states, no one of which can act independently to fully protect the River. Only meaningful federal action by the EPA can unify states behind solutions that match the size of the problem at hand.
While residents up and down the river continue to wait for EPA to accept its leadership responsibility, inland water pollution problems have multiplied while the Dead Zone makes its annual appearance as a great blemish on America’s record of commitment to clean water.
The legal filings can be found at http://docs.nrdc.org/water/wat_12031401.asp
More on the legal issues available on NRDC’s Switchboard blog:
Jon Devine “We're Going to Court to Cut Dead Zone Pollution”
Thom Cmar, “NRDC Taking Legal Steps to Protect the Great Lakes from Toxic Algal Blooms”
Ann Alexander, “Chicago and the Gulf Dead Zone: NRDC Lawsuits Address Downstream Damage”
August 9, 2011 - Corn Lobby Offers Flawed Data To Deflect Blame for Dead Zone
New USGS Study Finds Increases in Mississippi's Nitrate Pollution
Ames, Iowa – A new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact. Nitrates come mostly from the over-application of chemical fertilizers on crops in the Corn Belt, fouling streams and rivers and eventually helping to swell the annual Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone."
Corn lobbyists have been citing an analysis they commissioned in a bid to show that agriculture is not the source of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Corn Growers Association's claim is based on a 2009 report, titled "Hypoxia in the Gulf: An Analytical White Paper," written by the business consulting firm StrathKirn, Inc.
Researchers from the Environmental Working Group recently reviewed the corn lobby's report and today released an analysis that details its major flaws.
"Gulf fishermen and residents all along the Mississippi River Basin must endure this insult to their water while the culprits continue to deflect blame.
It is time for the corn lobby to acknowledge that their cropping system is a major source of water pollution and take responsibility for it," said EWG analyst Andrew Hug, co-author with Rebecca Sutton of the new EWG report, "Corn Cop Out."
Large industrial grain operations blanket their fields with nitrogen fertilizer and animal manure. They help push an average of 164,000 metric tons of fertilizer down the Mississippi River into the Gulf each year, creating a low-oxygen Dead Zone of more than 6,765 square miles – an area larger than the state of Connecticut. The excess nitrogen triggers massive blooms of algae that block sunlight and ultimately die off, consuming oxygen and driving out or killing marine plants and animals.
The corn lobby's study concludes that corn production can't possibly be causing the pollution problem because all of the nitrogen applied ends up in the corn, not in the water. However, that conclusion is based on an outdated figure for the protein (and therefore nitrogen) content of modern hybrid corn. In the past, corn tested at 10 percent protein, but current measurements indicate that corn's protein content has dropped 20-30 percent.
The corn lobby analysis also ignores current farm practices that boost nitrogen through the rotation of soybean or alfalfa crops and ignores the impact of manure spread on fields as additional fertilizer. If done correctly, the study's calculations would reverse, from a nitrogen deficit to an overall surplus of 3.2 million tons.
Corn lobbyists have long blamed others for the nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, pointing the finger at urban lawns, golf courses and sewage treatment plants. But a previous USGS survey found that more than 70 percent of the nitrogen comes from agriculture, 52 percent from corn and soy production alone. Corn is the United States' largest and most subsidized crop, pulling in $77 billion in taxpayer dollars since 1995.
Today's USGS study sadly details that nitrate transport to the Gulf of Mexico was 10 percent higher in 2008 than in 1980 and that none of the eight monitoring sites monitored showed any progress in nitrate reduction.
"The new USGS data clearly shows that we are making little progress in addressing nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin. Instead of putting out faulty studies and blaming others, it is time for the corn growers to end the cop out and actually become the environmental stewards they claim to be. Taking responsibility for their actions would be a welcome first step toward restoring Mississippi River water quality," said Hug.
Aug. 9, 2011 - USGS Report: No Consistent Declines in Nitrate Levels in Large Rivers in the Mississippi River Basin
Missouri River, upper Mississippi River and groundwater are rising sources of nitrate to the Gulf of Mexico
Despite efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin, concentrations and transport at eight major study sites did not consistently decline from 1980-2008. These results are based on a new scientific model developed by the USGS that takes into account variation in river flows in order to gain an accurate understanding of long term trends. The results of the new USGS study are published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Aug. 3, 2011 - EPA Denies Petition to Curb River Pollution While Gulf Dead Zone Rages
New Orleans, LA — EPA has denied a petition to implement a clean-up plan for an aquatic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, despite heavy economic losses to the U.S. fishing industry and continued research that shows the Dead Zone has doubled in size since 1985. This week, scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium completed their annual measurement of the Gulf Dead Zone, which measured 6,765 square miles and is larger than the state of Connecticut. Members of The Mississippi River Collaborative had petitioned the EPA to set numeric limits on the discharge of pollutants that feed the Dead Zone. However, last week EPA declined to take responsibility for setting regulations that would address the problem of lackluster and hodge-podge individual states’ water pollution regulation.
The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life. It forms every summer, caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution draining from the Mississippi River watershed. The pollution stimulates excessive growth of algae, or blooms. When the dying algae decays it uses up most of the oxygen in the water, which chokes marine life. The pollution comes from chemical fertilizer escaping farm fields, sewage treatment plant discharges, and polluted runoff from cities. These sources of pollution are along the entire length of the Mississippi River.
“Just days before the announcement that the measured size of the Dead Zone is larger-than-average, the EPA declined to take actions to limit Dead Zone-causing pollution and to implement a clean-up plan,” said Matt Rota, Science and Water Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “The Dead Zone is detrimental to Gulf sea life and the coastal residents’ way of life, and yet EPA continues to rely on the states to do things they have failed to do for well over a decade.”
Despite the fact that the Dead Zone has ballooned over the past thirty years, EPA denied the petition, filed in 2008 by members of the Mississippi River Collaborative, which asked for immediate action to set numeric limits on Dead Zone-causing pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf, as well as create an enforceable clean-up plan for the Dead Zone.
The petition showed that EPA has neglected its responsibility under the federal Clean Water Act to limit pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Through the petition, the Mississippi River Collaborative also showed that the Dead Zone will continue to grow unless EPA sets numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and requires all states in the river basin to meet those standards. Efforts now in Congress to cut funds for Farm Bill conservation programs—designed to prevent both cropland erosion and fertilizer run-off pollution—will exacerbate the pollution in the river and the Dead Zone.
Not only does the Dead Zone threaten the $2.8 billion Gulf fishing industry, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution cause environmental problems throughout the entire Mississippi River Basin. For example, toxic algae blooms result in fish kills, the death of livestock and pets, and damage to drinking water supplies. The Mississippi River Collaborative believes that because of the basin-wide implications of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, it is the EPA’s responsibility to take a leadership role in preventing further pollution.
“It’s distressing that the EPA will allow the decade of delay by the states along the Mississippi River to continue,” said Kris Sigford, Water Quality Director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “So there is effectively no one to tackle the pollution that causes green, gunky lakes, toxic algae blooms, unsafe drinking water supplies and the wipeout of marine life in the Gulf.”
The EPA called on states in 1998 to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, threatening to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003. Every state along the Mississippi River has ignored that and other deadlines set by EPA, but so far, the federal government has failed to supply urgently needed protections. As a result, inland water pollution problems have multiplied while the Dead Zone makes its annual appearance—each time bringing with it damage to the coastal residents and their livelihood.
July 7, 2011 - Mississippi River Collaborative writes in support of agency efforts to clarify Clean Water Act protections
US EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a guidance document that reaffirms protections for small streams and wetlands.
June 15, 2011
GRN Director of Science and Water Policy Matt Rota was recently featured in a radio interview with Free Speech Radio News ("Scientists forecast the largest-ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico").
May 9, 2011 - Soil Erosion, Row Crops and Tile Drainage Add Up to Trouble for America’s Corn Belt and Gulf Coast
Mississippi River Collaborative calls for improved conservation plans to preserve cropland and prevent polluted runoff
In addition to hurricanes and fluctuating markets, every summer, shrimpers and fishers in the Gulf of Mexico face another serious threat: the Dead Zone. While pollution sources exist along the entire length of the Mississippi River, recent reports affirm that the Corn Belt states are the most serious offenders in this yearly occurrence.
Scientists from the University of Illinois and Cornell University found that farm fields in the Corn Belt that use tile drainage are the largest contributors of nitrogen pollution to rivers that empty into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.
The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area the size of New Jersey where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support shrimp, fish and other marine life. It forms every summer, caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution carried by the Mississippi River. The nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate excessive growth of algae; when this algae dies, its decomposition uses up much of the oxygen in the water, which chokes marine life. The pollution comes from chemical fertilizer that runs off of farm fields, sewage treatment plants, and polluted runoff from cities.
“The Corn Belt states have developed highly productive farming systems, but they are also very leaky systems,” said Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director at the Iowa Environmental Council. “We leak nitrogen and phosphorus pollution through drainage systems and erode precious top soil into our streams and rivers at unsustainable rates. This pollution damages our waterways and threatens our farmers’—and shrimpers’—ways of life.”
The Illinois-Cornell research team analyzed 10 years of data from the 1,768 counties in the Mississippi River basin, generally known as the Corn Belt—an area spanning Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and southwest Minnesota. The data included crop acres and yields, census and livestock head counts, fertilizer use and tile drainage systems, nitrogen concentrations in waterways and river flow measurements. In the Corn Belt, where land is flat and tile drainage systems and channelized ditches and streams are common, the researchers found that the extensive row cropping combines with precipitation and soil erosion to create pathways that transport nitrogen from the soil into our waterways. Tile drainage systems are a type of below-ground plumbing that moves excess water away from plant roots and out to above-ground waterways. When tile systems drain water, they also drain excess fertilizers and pesticides—including the component nitrogen—that make their way into the Mississippi River and downstream to the Gulf.
Another report, Losing Ground, released in mid-April by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), shows that soil erosion from cropland in some areas of Iowa—a Corn Belt state—is up to 12 times higher than the federal government’s average estimates. This surface erosion is a pathway for phosphorous to enter waterways causing the pollution, which -- combined with nitrogen pollution -- causes the Dead Zone.
“Together, the Illinois-Cornell research and the EWG report show how closely agricultural pollution and soil erosion are linked to each other,” said Stacy James, Water Resources Scientist at Prairie Rivers Network. “Intensive, heavily fertilized row crops and tile drainage systems have become the foundation of the agricultural system in the Corn Belt, but at a great cost to our water and soil quality. We have to embrace measures that will reverse this degradation.”
Both reports provide evidence that voluntary conservation programs are not enough to counter the damage caused by federal subsidy policies that encourage farmers to plant crops fencerow to fencerow. Managing nutrient losses and soil erosion from our agricultural fields will require a broad range of measures, including regulations. The EWG report calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to step up enforcement of soil conservation requirements on agricultural cropland to curtail the unsustainable rates of soil loss and associated phosphorous pollution. Other solutions may include incentives, such as cost-sharing programs, that encourage landowners to address nitrogen and phosphorous pollution by modifying tile drainage systems with wood chip trenches, managing drainage to reduce the flow in tile channels during winter and early spring and establishing wetlands at tile drainage outlets.
The EWG report also recommends strengthening provisions in the Farm Bill when it is reauthorized in 2012, including:
• requiring all producers participating in existing or new crop and revenue insurance programs to meet Conservation Compliance standards;
• requiring vegetative buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between row crops and all lakes, rivers and smaller streams; and
• adequately funding USDA’s technical staff so it can implement increased inspections and enforcement of conservation practices.
The Mississippi River Collaborative supports these report recommendations and will work to see them implemented in the next Farm Bill. The Collaborative recognizes that reducing agricultural runoff and increasing soil conservation are critical to preserving the future productivity of our agricultural lands. These issues strongly relate to improving water quality in the Mississippi River basin and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Scientists have done the research,” said Matt Rota, Science and Water Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “We know that soil erosion and agricultural pollution hurt our farmers, our waters, and our Gulf. Now it’s time to do something about it—before it’s too late.”
TCWN Releases "Is There Any More Room for Pollution?"
April 2011 -- MRC Member the Tennessee Clean Water Network recently released a 2011 report addressing Tennessee's water pollution permitting program.
This report is the second in the series on Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation's water pollution program. The first report concentrated on TDEC's enforcement program.
This report "Is There Any More Room For Pollution?" highlights many failures of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination Program that is administered by the state.
April 13, 2011 - Unchecked Soil Erosion Pollutes Waterways and Damages Agricultural Productivity
Mississippi River Collaborative calls for improved soil conservation plans to preserve cropland and prevent polluted runoff
A report released on April 13, 2011, shows that soil erosion from cropland in some areas of Iowa is up to 12 times higher than the federal government’s average estimates. Cropland erosion threatens the vitality of American farmers, increases water pollution from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and economists put the annual cost of this soil erosion to U.S. taxpayers at between $60 and $100 billion..
The report Losing Ground, released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to step up enforcement of soil conservation requirements on agricultural cropland to curtail unsustainable rates of soil loss.
“The United States is literally losing ground in the decades-old fight against erosion—the most fundamental and damaging environmental problem in agriculture,” said Craig Cox, Midwest Vice President of the Environmental Working Group. “There is compelling evidence that soil erosion and runoff from cropland are far worse than official USDA estimates.”
The EWG study looked at detailed soil erosion data for Iowa cropland that is tracked daily by Iowa State University scientists, allowing precise measurement of soil erosion rates after every storm. This daily erosion data shows a much different picture than is portrayed by the average soil loss rates reported every five years by the USDA’s National Resources Inventory.
The USDA’s 2007 data reported average soil loss on cropland in Iowa of 5.2 tons per acre per year, which is only slightly higher than the “sustainable” annual soil loss of 5 tons per acre per year. The daily erosion data for 2007 shows that actual erosion exceeded the sustainable soil loss rate in 440 Iowa townships (28% of Iowa) and was greater than twice the sustainable loss rate in 220 townships (14% of Iowa). “Sustainable” loss is the amount of soil loss the land can tolerate before it begins to lose its ability to sustain healthy crops.
“The rich topsoil of the American Midwest is a precious natural resource that has taken thousands of years to create,” said Stacy James, Water Resources Scientist at Prairie Rivers Network. “Without better conservation measures on the ground, our valuable crop land is washing to the Gulf of Mexico, along with the Heartland’s food security.”
Agriculture is not the only industry threatened by severe soil erosion. Runoff from cropland carries nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from sediment, fertilizer and manure into the Midwest’s rivers and lakes. This runoff pollution enters the Mississippi River, and ultimately ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, worsening the Dead Zone, an area where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support fish, shrimp and other marine life.
The EWG’s Losing Ground report is evidence that chronically underfunded voluntary conservation programs are failing to blunt the damage caused by federal subsidy policies that encourage farmers to plant crops fencerow to fencerow. While there is a Conservation Compliance provision from 1985 that requires farmers who accept subsidies to implement soil conservation measures on vulnerable highly-erodible land in order to remain eligible for farm subsidy payments, there is little enforcement effort.
“The key word here is ‘preventable’—this report shows how much preventable high-quality topsoil is flowing down the Mississippi River,” said Matt Rota, Science and Water Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “There are effective and efficient programs and practices in place that can reduce the damaging effects of soil erosion on our waterways and farms.”
The EWG report also recommends strengthening Conservation Compliance provisions when the Farm Bill is reauthorized in 2012, including:
• Require all producers participating in existing or new crop and revenue insurance programs to meet Conservation Compliance standards.
• Require vegetative buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between row crops and all lakes, rivers and smaller streams.
• Adequately fund USDA’s technical staff so it can implement increased inspections and enforcement of conservation practices.
The Mississippi River Collaborative supports the report recommendations and will work with EWG to see these recommendations implemented in the next Farm Bill. The Collaborative recognizes that soil conservation is critical to preserving the future productivity of our agricultural lands and strongly relates to improving water quality in the Mississippi River Basin and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Knowing is half the battle. We know that the government’s data underestimates the problem of soil erosion in the United States. Now it is up to us to implement proven strategies to keep our precious soil on the farms, where it belongs,” James said.
The report “Losing Ground” is available here.
A short video showing EWG’s aerial footage of soil erosion damage is available here.
Serial Spillers: MRC Members Act to Limit Chicago Sewage Pollution
Illegal sewage discharges mucking waterways from Chicago to Gulf of Mexico
CHICAGO (March 1, 2011) – Water pollution illegally dumped from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD’s) three sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflow pipes has created a plume of harmful impacts stretching from Chicago all the way to the Gulf of Mexico according to notice of a suit delivered to MWRD today.
Wastewater discharged by MWRD exceeds federal water pollution limits and violates state-issued permits. The problem is so severe that it wipes out oxygen in the water after big rains, and causes harmful, stinking mats of algae to form downstream of the MWRD plants.
Mississippi River Collaborative members Natural Resources Defense Council and Prairie Rivers Network, along with Sierra Club, have given MWRD a legally-required 60-day notice of their intent to sue over the regional water regulator’s admitted pollution problem.
The notice points to discharges of pollution from treatment plants that regularly violate federal standards requiring that discharges not cause or contribute to unnatural sludge or growth of algae, which harms other forms of life in the water. Those standards further require that the water contain sufficient dissolved oxygen for fish to breathe.
For more information, including Mississippi River Collaborative member organization responses and suit details, read the complete press release here.
October 28, 2010
National Research Council report says EPA must set pollution limits in the Gulf
Mississippi River Collaborative Cheers Findings, Calls for Action
In a new report, a committee of scientists and experts at the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences recommends swift government action to reduce damaging fertilizer pollution in the Mississippi River basin and the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields and lawns not only impairs local waters by causing ugly algae blooms, but the accumulation of these chemicals downriver also plays a central role in the formation of the annual Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. Characterized by very low to non-existent levels of oxygen in the water, the Dead Zone is a black hole in a body of water where fish, shrimp and other sea life either flee or perish—without oxygen there can be no life. Corn Belt states along the upper Mississippi are the largest contributors to nitrate and phosphate pollution in the River from fertilizer runoff.
The Mississippi River Collaborative, a coalition of more than 20 state and regional organizations that promote clean water policies across the Mississippi River basin, applauds the NRC’s findings and calls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Congress and the Administration to quickly respond.
“While federal governments tend to move at glacial speeds,” said Matt Rota, Water Resources Program Director at Gulf Restoration Network, “I hope the EPA will take this report seriously and take quick action to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Mississippi River and the terrible Dead Zone that it causes.”
Among the recommendations in the NRC report are calls for a comprehensive and aggressive commitment to cleaning-up the entire River basin, from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. Specific recommendations for the EPA include:
• Establishing a numeric limit for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants in the waters of the northern Gulf. This kind of limit would provide an endpoint that the EPA and Upper Mississippi River states can use as they set water quality standards for fertilizer pollution and processes for improving water quality upstream and throughout the basin.
• Developing a basin-wide action plan with partner federal agencies and the Mississippi River States to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution throughout the Mississippi River Basin and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. This action plan should be rigorous and include clear performance measures, milestones and deadlines.
“When the nation’s top science advisors make suggestions, we should listen,” said Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director at Iowa Environmental Council. “These recommendations are common sense. Together, the coordinated restoration effort and specific limits on fertilizer pollution recommended in this report could mark a crucial first step in reclaiming the Mississippi River basin for future generations.”
The recommendations in this report were discussed at the October 27 meeting of NRC’s Committee on Clean Water Act Implementation across the Mississippi River Basin. The report is available here.
kyGREENtv features Kentucky Waterways Alliance. See the video here.
June 10, 2010
Cash Creek Coal Plant Wastewater Permit Sent Back to Drawing Board
Louisville, KY – In a rare move, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has decided to re-open proceedings on the Cash Creek (Henderson County) coal-fired energy plant’s wastewater permit, responding to the public’s concerns that pollution from the plant would degrade the Green River.
The plant would have discharged millions of gallons of polluted waste into the river everyday. Citizens’ groups claimed that the permit failed to control dangerous toxic pollution from the plant and its slag landfill, or even to consider whether the facility should be built at all. Now, the public will get another chance to convince the state to keep the Green River clean, as the state prepares to hold a new public hearing on the plant.
"This permit is the perfect example of why (Collaborative member) Kentucky Waterways Alliance has been working for a decade to force the state to write permits that provide better protections from water pollution. Had the plant moved forward with the approved permit, the Green River would have been victim to many unmonitored or uncontrolled pollutants," said Judy Petersen, Kentucky Waterways Alliance Executive Director. "We’re thrilled the state decided to re-write the permit before we spent more precious resources fighting for a clean and healthy Green River."
"Kentuckians deserve healthy rivers. A big new power plant dumping harmful pollution into the river would take us in the wrong direction," said Wallace McMullen, Energy Chair of the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club. The Cabinet’s decision means that a new plan will need to be developed to control water pollution before the Cash Creek plant can move forward. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a hard look at the first permit and questioned the state’s failure to evaluate how to protect the river from plant pollution.
"The last time around, the Cabinet didn’t listen to the public. We’re glad that they are taking a second look, and we’re sure that any fair analysis will show that Cash Creek would actually damage our region, scaring off good clean jobs and polluting our water and air," said Lee Dew, a Sierra Club member who has sampled creeks in the area.
The proposed Cash Creek plant is a speculative project, funded by New York-based investment banks. The plant would convert coal into an artificial natural gas substitute that would be sold on the market across the country. While the power could be sent out of state, the pollution would stay in Kentucky.
"The investors behind Cash Creek have been stringing Kentucky along for years," said John Blair with Valley Watch. "They want Kentuckians to foot the bill for all their permits – and all their pollution. It is time we started building a clean energy future, for everybody."
The Cabinet’s decision comes after the water pollution permit was challenged by Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Valley Watch and the Sierra Club. The public will have a chance to weigh in on the revised water pollution permit when it is issued later this summer.
April 13, 2010
New USDA Initiative Provides more Money for Targeted Agricultural Conservation in States that Drain into Mississippi River
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a new program called the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI).
The program will be administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 12 states that drain into the Mississippi River. MRBI provides an extra pool of money to fund agricultural conservation practices that will reduce nutrient loading into rivers and lakes. The goal of the program is to improve the health of the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico.
Landowners in priority watersheds will be eligible to enroll in several NRCS conservation programs and implement certain approved practices. These practices are known to effectively avoid, control, and trap nutrient runoff. The conservation programs that are part of MRBI are: 1) Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (which includes Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program), 2) Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program, and 3) Conservation Innovation Grants.
The Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative provides a unique opportunity for local and state governments, Indian tribes, and nongovernmental organizations to be a part of targeted agricultural conservation. These entities are eligible to form partnerships with NRCS and landowners in watershed conservation efforts. Partners need to bring resources to the table for efforts such as outreach and monitoring.
Those interested in becoming a partner should contact their local or state NRCS office. The deadline for submitting a partnership proposal is May 3, 2010.
March 22, 2010
The Sierra Club recently submitted more than 42,000 signatures to U.S. EPA in support of a petition authored by the Mississippi River Collaborative.
See their comments and collected signatures here.
Read the petition here.
March 19, 2010
The Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act (HR 3671) introduced by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI 3rd) was passed in the House on by a vote of 289 - 121.
See Rep. Kind's media release on the passage here.
A breakdown of the recorded vote is available here.
August 7, 2009
Mississippi River Collaborative Targets Solutions to the Dead Zone
Knoxville, TN – Researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium on Monday July 27, 2009 reported on the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This summer it is 3,000 square miles, an area larger than the State of Delaware.
The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life. It forms every summer, caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution coming from the Mississippi River watershed. The nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate excessive growth of algae; when this algae dies, its decomposition uses up much of the oxygen in the water, which chokes marine life. The pollution comes from chemical fertilizer that runs off of farm fields, sewage treatment plants, and polluted runoff from cities. The pollution sources are along the entire length of the Mississippi River.
DOWNLOAD COMPLETE PRESS RELEASE
April 1, 2009
USGS Identifies Top Gulf ‘Dead Zone’ Polluting Watersheds
WASHINGTON– For the first time, the U.S. Geological Survey has identified the top 150 polluting watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin that cause the annual 8,000 square-mile “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Based on the USGS report released today, members of the Mississippi River Water Quality Collaborative urge the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state policy makers to use the report to solve water quality problems both within the states and downstream in the Gulf.
DOWNLOAD COMPLETE PRESS RELEASE
July 30, 2008
12 grantees in McKnight's Water Quality Collaborative submitted a petition requesting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency use its powers to control nitrogen and phosphorous pollution (which comes from farms and contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico).
|2012 Agricultural Certainty Principles (pdf)||84.44 KB|
|2012 Agricultural Certainty Principles cover letter (pdf)||65.21 KB|
Choose a member organization from the dropdown menu below to learn about a group working on Mississippi River issues in your area.
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
26 E. Exchange Street, Suite 206
St. Paul, MN 55101
Iowa Environmental Council
East Locust Street, Suite 220
Des Moines, Iowa 50309
Washington University Inter-
disciplinary Environmental Clinic
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, Missouri 63130
Missouri Coalition for
6267 Delmar Blvd. Ste. 2E
St. Louis, MO 63130
Arkansas Public Policy Panel
1308 West Second St.
Little Rock, AR 72201
Gulf Restoration Network
P.O. Box 2245
New Orleans, LA 70176
Tulane Environmental Law Clinic
If you'd like more information regarding
the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic,
please call 504.865.5787 or
Midwest Environmental Advocates
551 W. Main Street, Suite 200
Madison, Wisconsin 53703
Environmental Law & Policy Center
of the Midwest
35 East Wacker Drive, Suite 1300
Chicago, IL 60601
Prairie Rivers Network
1902 Fox Drive, Suite G.
Champaign IL 61820
Kentucky Waterways Alliance
Bakery Square, Suite 217
120 Webster Street
Louisville, KY 40206
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
4443 Pecan Valley Road
Nashville, TN 37218
Tennessee Clean Water Network
625 Market St.
Knoxville, TN 37902