Editorial: Neglect on the Mississippi

StarTribune Minneapolis St. Paul, MN; October 21, 2007


"The EPA has failed to use its authorities under the Clean Water Act to provide adequate interstate coordination and oversight of state water quality activities along the Mississippi River."

An Oct. 16 report published by the National Academy of Sciences.

"The EPA is committed to increasing efforts with all of our partners to improve the water quality and monitoring of the Mississippi River Basin."

Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water.

In the decades since it assumed a central place in American culture and commerce, the Mississippi River has been called many things, including "The Father of Waters,"Old Blue" and, in the robust vernacular of Mark Twain, "the crookedest river in the world."

But "orphan-like"?

That’s the haunting title applied in a new report by the National Academy of Sciences, which documents the way that state and federal regulators have failed to protect the nation’s greatest river from urban runoff, farm chemicals, soil erosion and a variety of industrial pollutants that pose grave threats to its water quality and biological health. If regional and federal leaders don’t read this report as a wake-up call, they are failing in their stewardship of one of the world’s great natural wonders.

Minnesotans should take special note, because the report was financed by the McKnight Foundation, whose leaders began to suspect a few years ago that the greatest natural resource in their back yard was a victim of neglect and abuse. They were right.

The report, released last Tuesday, finds a variety of threats to the Mississippi, including fish that are unsafe to eat because of toxic chemicals, fecal bacteria that surge in certain seasons, "turbidity" from suspended sediments that cuts off sun and air to certain fish and plant species, and overloading of farm nutrients that cause algal blooms and choke off life in the river itself and contribute to the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone."

But the report doesn’t stop at symptoms, it goes to two core causes:

• The Clean Water Act of 1972, which essentially stopped the dumping of municipal sewage and industrial waste into the nation’s waterways, has little jurisdiction over "nonpoint" sources of pollution, such as urban runoff and farm chemicals. The report says that these nonpoint pollutants — phosphorus, nitrogen, soil, polluted rainwater — now represent the biggest threat to the river’s health.

• Because the river runs through or past 10 states, nobody’s in charge of setting consistent pollution standards, or even monitoring water quality in any systematic fashion. Kentucky, for example, allows five times more fecal coliform bacteria in the river than its neighbor, Illinois. Tennessee allows twice the level of PCB contamination as Mississippi, which is just downstream. Arkansas accepts two to three times more "turbidity" — cloudiness caused by suspended sediment — as Iowa.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to provide an umbrella over those states, coordinating state and regional pollution-control efforts. But the report’s authors, who include some of the most eminent research scientists in the nation, say the EPA has failed to do its job. "The law is very clear," says Gretchen Bonfert, program officer for the environment at the McKnight Foundation. "Where the call is not being met, the EPA is supposed to step in."

The bad news is that these threats to the Mississippi have been known for at least a decade by people who study its biology and geology. The good news is they’ve been working on useful solutions, and Congress could put two of them in place this year:

• Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., has proposed a plan for basinwide monitoring and reduction of the soil and chemical runoff that leads to turbidity and nutrient overloading in the river. His bill has passed the House and deserves to pass in the Senate.

•Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, created a special program in 2002 to reward farmers for reducing soil erosion and chemical runoff on working lands. But that program was so badly underfunded that it turns away three of every four farmers who apply. Harkin has proposed streamlining and enlarging conservation programs in the current farm bill. His plan should be part of the farm bill that Congress produces this year.

"The Mississippi is well worth reading about," Mark Twain wrote in 1883. "It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable." Americans who take the river for granted, who live near it or work on it, have forgotten Twain’s admonition too often, and a great natural resource has paid the price.