Report: Divisions muddy rivers quality

By Amy Wold
The Advocate; Baton Rouge October 17, 2007

The state-by-state approach  used to monitor and address water quality in the Mississippi River needs to be changed, The National Academies recommends in a new report.

The report says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should take the lead in organizing data collection and sharing between states and in developing a national standard for nutrients that end up in the river.

“A systemwide view is needed to achieve water-quality objectives,” said David Dzombak, report committee chairman and environmental professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

An e-mail statement attributed to Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water, said the agency is working to improve water quality in the Mississippi River basin.

“Cooperative conservation and improved monitoring can help us all achieve sustainable solutions that transcend political boundaries,” he wrote.

The National Academies report was prompted by questions about how effective the federal Clean Water Act has been for the Mississippi River and focuses on the 10 states adjacent to the river, Dzombak said.

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the signing of the 1972 Clean Water Act, he said.

Although the Clean Water Act has been effective in reducing point source pollution coming directly out of a pipe, the act hasn’t been as aggressively used to reduce nonpoint pollution, he said.

Nonpoint pollution can come from a variety of locations, from urban storm water runoff to rainfall runoff from farmland.

During a news conference Tuesday, the report’s authors noted that the major hazards to Mississippi River water quality come from two types of nonpoint pollution — nutrients and sediment in the river.

For sediment, the problem is having too much of it in the upper river system and too little of it in the lower river system, Dzombak said.

With nutrients, the problem of too much getting into the river is systemwide, including the northern Gulf of Mexico, where these nutrients form a “dead zone” of low oxygen off the coast of Louisiana every summer, he said.

Quoting a hypoxia study done in the late 1990s, Dzombak said it’s estimated that 90 percent of the nutrients in the river’s upper basin comes from agriculture and 10 percent comes from other sources, like urban runoff.

That points to a need for better coordination between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA to target available conservation funding into those areas most likely to contribute to sediment and nutrient problems in the river, he said.

The ability to address water quality is also hampered by a lack of information about the water quality, lack of monitoring and a lack of coordination of what monitoring does go on, Dzombak said.  “There’s no centralized data-gathering program or data-sharing system,” Dzombak said.

Doug Daigle, coordinator with the Lower Mississippi River Sub-Basin Committee on Hypoxia, agreed that there is a need for more information about the current status of Mississippi River quality.

“There’s really no monitoring on the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill., to St. Francisville,” he said.

In addition, the report also calls for EPA to set a national standard for how much nutrients can be allowed in the Mississippi River. Setting this standard would enable officials to use the Clean Water Act to set a total maximum daily load of the pollution for the river and require considering point and nonpoint pollution in making a plan on how to reach that level, said Robin Craig, report committee member and law professor at Florida State University.

Without a set standard, there’s no way to move toward reducing the level under the Clean Water Act, she said.