Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Decades of Delay: Urgent EPA Action Needed to Protect Mississippi River

Nov 17, 2016

Every summer, Wisconsin communities and tourism-related businesses cope with foul, smelly water, algae blooms, and dead fish; conditions that limit recreational opportunities on Wisconsin’s waters, decrease property values, and hurt business owners that rely on clean and healthy water for their livelihood.

These problems are fueled by nutrients: excess phosphorus and nitrogen from industrial discharges, poorly treated municipal wastewater, and runoff from farm fields and livestock operations.

The good news is that water pollution from phosphorus and nitrogen is preventable. But it takes cooperation, sound science, environmental law enforcement and public support to keep sources of pollution in check. What is Wisconsin – at our position near the top of the Mississippi River – doing to protect our water and how do we compare to other states between here and the Gulf of Mexico?

First, some history.

Back in 2010, the State of Wisconsin took an important step forward in limiting one kind of nutrient pollution – phosphorus – to improve our water quality. The innovative, science-based, numeric water quality standards were rules on the maximum amounts of the substance in the water, including strategies for limiting phosphorus and agreements for limits in water pollution permits.

Our phosphorus standards did another great thing for our state: we started tracking and assessing the amounts of the pollutant in our lakes, streams and rivers. We were a leader in not only setting water quality standards, but in using science to gain a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem in our state.

Then, in 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed a nutrient reduction framework after over 15 years of task forces, action plans, and lawsuits failed to materialize into meaningful reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution entering the Mississippi River System which causes the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the largest dead zones in the world. In part, the framework (in a directive commonly referred to as “the Stoner memo” after author and Acting Assistant water Administrator Nancy Stoner) was born of out of recognition of the fact that a regional or national framework was needed to address the problem of nutrient pollution because no single state had an incentive to impose more stringent regulations.

Unfortunately, even after a persistent lawsuit by the Mississippi River Collaborative to push the EPA to make states put this regional pollution control plan in place, states have stalled and even Wisconsin’s plans are at risk.

Is Wisconsin doing enough to address the problem and clean-up our waterways?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a new report released today by the Mississippi River Collaborative shows that there is still much work to be done. “Decades of Delay: EPA Leadership Still Lacking in Protecting America’s Great River” shows the drastic lack of progress each of the states along the main stem of the Mississippi River has made towards implementing the EPA’s nutrient reduction framework. And while Wisconsin was a leader in setting phosphorus standards, our state, along with every other state evaluated, has failed to implement a majority of the recommendations set out by EPA.

We are now five years removed from the release of the framework and there are only slivers of progress to hold on to. Wisconsin’s numeric standards for phosphorus have been under attack for as long as they have been in place. For example, Governor Walker’s 2011-2013 budget proposal included a provision that would have eliminated the criteria and replaced them with standards that are “no more stringent than neighboring states.”  That provision was later removed, in part due to concerns that it would violate EPA regulations. Most recently, WDNR has been working towards implementation of a multi-discharger variance that would delay compliance with the phosphorus criteria.

Wisconsin’s work to assess waterbodies for phosphorus impairments is important because impaired waterbodies receive extra protections under the federal Clean Water Act. However, the results of the increased assessments are not encouraging: over 60% of the river and stream miles and 70% of the lake and reservoir acres assessed contain phosphorus at levels that exceed the water quality standard. With respect to nitrogen, progress towards development of numeric standards has completely stalled. And because there is no standard, the Wisconsin DNR does not assess waterbodies for nitrogen impairments.

Decades of Delay: EPA action needed now

The MRC report shows that Wisconsin is not alone in its failure to implement the EPA’s framework. This is a basin-wide problem and EPA needs to take further steps as it is charged with doing to ensure that states comply with the mandates of the Clean Water Act to restore the waters that belong to all of us.

Find the full report on the Mississippi River Collaborative website. Jump to page 37 for a summary of findings on Wisconsin’s nutrient control program status. The report includes recommendations for urgent action by the EPA on page 9.

/ tagged: government, federal, mississippi river, clean water act