DIY Tools: Will They Help States Set Nutrient Criteria?
EPA is renewing its emphasis on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in surface waters. It wants all states—and this is not a new policy—to set their own numeric nutrient limits. A recent step is the creation of a website, to help states achieve that goal.
No one is denying the harmful effects of excess nutrients and the damage, financial and otherwise, they can cause—algae blooms, harm to aquatic ecosystems, loss of recreational use of affected waters (with implications for tourism in many areas), potential harm to the fishing industry, and possibly even human health risks from the disinfectants used to remove algae from drinking water supplies. It’s the method of combating the problem that’s been a sticking point, played out dramatically in Florida over the last few years.
The state had been operating under a narrative approach, rather than numeric standards, for controlling phosphorus and nitrogen, although EPA had said that Florida—and other states—must set their own numeric criteria. Although the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had been working toward the numeric limits, it wasn’t moving fast enough for some environmental groups, which sued EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act, eventually leading EPA to set Florida’s criteria itself. The voluble response from Florida included charges that EPA’s science in setting the limits was inadequate and that compliance would cost billions of dollars that the state simply couldn’t afford.
In March, more than 50 groups, including businesses, utilities, trade associations, and Florida cities and counties, signed a letter to the state’s two senators, essentially asking them to block funding for enforcing the criteria. Meeting the numeric criteria, the letter maintained, would be financially ruinous for the state, causing the loss of thousands of agricultural jobs and steep increases, on the order of $700 per year per household, in water utility bills. Since then, several lawsuits have been filed and more are on the way; the Florida DEP has a set time period in which to develop a compliance plan. The guest editorial by Gordon England in our July/August 2011 issue explores the history and some of the possible implications of the situation in detail.
The numeric nutrient criteria that EPA determined for the state of Florida have been controversial, to say the least. Many people, not only in Florida but across the country, were alarmed by the precedent such an action sets: Never before had EPA set legal water-quality standards for a single state. If it happened in Florida, why not elsewhere?
In its introduction to the new website, EPA says it “recognizes that states and local communities are best positioned to restore and protect their waters, and the agency is providing technical guidance and tools to help states develop numeric nutrient criteria for their water bodies.” In other words, EPA doesn’t want a repeat of what happened in Florida.
In March, EPA put forward a framework for states to follow in managing their nutrient pollution, including prioritizing all watersheds within a state for nutrient load reductions and setting load reduction goals “based on best available information.” States were to address all sources including stormwater, septic systems, and agricultural areas.
With the new website, EPA is trying to help states obtain at least some of that information through a Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution Data Access Tool, which allows users to map where and to what extent pollution is occurring. The site also includes a map showing the progress of all states toward adopting numeric nutrient criteria; more than half are shown as having “no nutrient criteria” and only one, Hawaii, appears to have nutrient criteria in place for all waters.
To what extent are you involved in determining appropriate nutrient loadings and source controls in your area—for a municipal program, for a TMDL, or for some other purpose? Which of the tools and information on EPA’s site do you think are most useful for states that are working on their own numeric nutrient criteria? What would you add? Leave a comment at www.stormh2o.com, or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Author's Bio: Janice Kaspersen is the editor of Erosion Control magazine and Stormwater magazine.