Latest EPA assessment shows almost no improvement in river and stream nitrogen pollution

ST. LOUIS — The nation’s rivers and streams remain persistently polluted with nutrients that contaminate drinking water and fuel a massive dead zone for aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a recently released Environmental Protection Agency assessment.

It’s a difficult problem concentrated in agricultural areas that drain into the Mississippi River. More than half of the basin’s miles of rivers and streams were in poor condition for nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers entering waterways, the agency found. For decades, federal and state officials have struggled to control farm runoff, the largest source of nutrient pollution that is generally not federally regulated.

It’s a problem that’s only expected to become harder to control as climate change produces more intense storms that dump rain across the Midwest and South. Those heavy rains flood farm fields, pick up commercial fertilizers and carry them into nearby rivers.

“It’s really concerning that we’re clearly not achieving the goals we’ve set for ourselves,” said Olivia Dorothy, director of river restoration at the conservation group American Rivers.

The assessment is based on samples collected in 2018 and 2019 and allows experts to compare river conditions from previous sampling rounds, although different sampling locations were used. It will take years for the agency to compile the results and release the report, which is the most comprehensive assessment of the nation’s river and stream health. The phosphorus content decreased slightly, while the nitrogen content remained virtually the same.

About half of all river miles were found to be in poor condition for snails, worms, beetles and other bottom-dwelling species that are an important indicator of the river’s biological health. About a third were also assessed as having poor fishing conditions based on species diversity.

“Controlling pollution is a big job. It’s hard work,” said Tom Wall, director of EPA’s Division of Watershed Restoration, Assessment and Protection. “It is not getting worse, despite the enormous pressure on our waterways. And we would like to see more progress.”

Water pollution from factories and industry is generally federally regulated. The Biden administration recently proposed stricter regulations on meat and poultry processing plants to reduce pollution, Wall said.

When nutrient pollution flows into the Gulf of Mexico, it encourages the growth of oxygen-consuming bacteria. That creates a so-called “dead zone,” a vast area where it is difficult or impossible for marine animals to survive, ranging from about the size of Rhode Island to the size of New Jersey, said Nancy Rabalais, professor of oceanography and wetlands. studies at Louisiana State University.

This affects the productivity of commercial fishing and marine life in general, but nutrient pollution is also harmful upstream. Too much nitrate in drinking water can affect the way the blood transports oxygen, causing health problems such as headaches, nausea and stomach cramps. It can mainly affect babies and sometimes cause ‘blue baby syndrome’, which gives the skin a bluish tint.

The EPA created the Hypoxia Task Force in the late 1990s to reduce nutrient pollution and reduce the dead zone, but it relies on voluntary efforts to reduce farm runoff and has not significantly reduced the dead zone.

Anne Schechinger, Midwest director at the Environmental Working Group, said new regulations are needed, not voluntary efforts. She said the Biden administration has done a lot to improve drinking water, but not enough to reduce agricultural runoff.

Methods to prevent runoff include building buffers between farmland and waterways, creating new wetlands to filter pollutants and applying less fertilizer.

It is a politically charged issue, especially in the large agricultural states in the Midwest, which contribute significantly to the problem. Many of those states cite their voluntary conservation programs as evidence that they are addressing the problem, but the new EPA data shows little progress.

Minnesota is one of the few states that has a so-called “buffer law” that requires vegetation to be planted along rivers, streams and public drainage ditches. But because groundwater and surface water are closely linked in much of the Upper Midwest, nutrient pollution can eventually leak underground through fields, eventually bypassing those buffers, and still end up in streams, said Gregory Klinger, who works for the Olmsted County, Minnesota. soil and water conservation district.

There also needs to be a focus on preventing over-fertilization — about 30% of farmers still use more than the recommended amounts of fertilizer on their fields, says Brad Carlson, an extension officer at the University of Minnesota who communicates with farmers about nutrient pollution. issues.

Martin Larsen, a farmer and conservation technician in southeastern Minnesota, said he and other farmers are interested in practices that reduce their nutrient pollution. He has broken up his typical corn and soybean rotation with oats and medium red clover, a type of plant that can naturally increase nitrogen levels in the soil. He could get by with about half as much fertilizer for a corn crop following a clover planting, compared to a corn-corn rotation.

Growing oats and red clover as cover crops also improves the soil. But Larsen said it’s difficult for many farmers to plant them because they often count on an immediate payback for everything they grow. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cover crops are planted on only 5.1% of harvested agricultural land.

Larsen said that because regulations are so unpopular, more needs to be done to encourage better practices. For example, he said this could include companies changing the composition of the feed they use for animals, giving farmers an opening to plant crops that use less fertilizer. Or government programs that do more to subsidize things like ground covers.

He said many farmers in his community recognize the need to do things differently. “But we also feel very trapped in the system,” he said.


Walling reported from Chicago.


Follow Melina Walling on X: @MelinaWalling.


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