Group issues scathing report on EPA, states' efforts to reduce nutrient pollution of Mississippi River; cites 2015 'close call' involving QC water supply

Voluntary initiatives by the U.S. EPA and 10 states bordering the Mississippi over the past 20 years have largely failed to rein in harmful nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by cities, farms and industry, according to a scathing report issued today (11/17) by an environmental and legal group focused on protecting the Mississippi River watershed.

"Though the EPA has consistently and emphatically urged states to take measures to combat nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, its encouragement has come without enforceable regulations, specific deadlines or funding for implementation," the report by the Mississippi River Collaborative says. "Not surprisingly, the problem persists, especially in the Mississippi River, despite a variety of Clean Water Act tools and viable regulatory options available to states."

The analysis of nutrient pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in the Mississippi River watershed – entitled "Decades of Delay" – says the 10 states bordering the country's longest river have failed to establish any numeric limits for nitrogen discharges and only two states have set numeric limits for phosphorus pollution.

Both nitrogen and phosphorus have long been known to encourage algae growth that harms aquatic life. The high levels of the two chemicals flowing into the Mississippi has created the "Dead Zone," an area the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut, where the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

The report "clearly demonstrates that states are either unwilling or unable to solve this problem," the watershed group report stated. "It is time for EPA to step up and provide leadership and assistance to establish safe and viable pollution limits and provide the regulatory framework and enforcement to back them up."

In Iowa, the report said the state's "primary approach to nutrient pollution control relies on a patchwork of voluntary and non-regulatory measures rather than explicit water quality goals."

In Des Moines, the water company has needed to install equipment to remove nitrates from its water supply, and the waterworks is suing several drainage districts in northwest Iowa seeking to force them to reduce the level of nitrogen in water flowing into streams from underground tiles (pipes) draining farm fields.

Another growing concern, according to the report, is the formation of microcystins, toxins produced by cyanobacteria blooms that form in lakes and rivers with too much phosphorus.

In addition to closing many state park beaches, the microcystins also resulted in "a close call" involving the drinking water supplies in the Quad Cities, the report stated.

". . . unsafe levels of microcystin toxins were also documented in 2015 in the Mississippi River at the drinking water intakes for the cities of Davenport, IA and Moline, IL," according to the report. "The cities were fortunate that their filter systems were able to remove the toxins to safe levels in the finished drinking water, but it was a close call."

The Mississippi River Collaborative is a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi River as well as regional and national groups working on issues affecting the Mississippi. The "Decades of Delay" report was funded by the McKnight Foundation.

CLICK HERE to download the full 76-page report.

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