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Federal action is key – numerical standards bring agricultural pollution into the existing CWA framework for enforcing water quality standards

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Federal action is key – numerical standards bring agricultural pollution into the existing CWA framework for enforcing water quality standards

Devine 2019 - Director, Federal Water Policy, Water Division, Nature Program
Jon Devine September 23 2019 “How the Clean Water Act Can Combat Harmful Algal Blooms”
The Problem: Nitrogen and Phosphorus Runoff Fuel Water Quality Problems The first report is an important effort to track states’ access to, and efforts to make public, information about industrial livestock facilities, known in the Clean Water Act as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or “CAFOs.” As my colleague Valerie Baron discusses, our report documents the numerous harms that livestock operations can inflict on nearby communities, and the resulting need for pollution control officials to have adequate information to properly regulate the facilities’ management of manure and the nitrogen and phosphorus it contains. Unfortunately, as we found, the available information about these operations is out of date, grossly incomplete, and highly variable from state to state These findings call out for a renewed effort to comprehensively understand—and then control—nutrient pollution from animal factories. The second release is an overview of how states track and communicate the threats associated with events scientists refer to as “harmful algal blooms.” Algae are photosynthetic organisms that derive energy from the sun and grow wildly when fed by nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, leading to massive “blooms” of organisms. These blooms are fueled, in part, by fertilizer and manure runoff from farms and other animal facilities. In some cases, these blooms are just gross—they create a slimy muck that you don’t want to share the water with. In other cases, when the algae die, the decomposition process sucks oxygen from the water and causes water bodies to become “hypoxic”; the enormous annual Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone” is an example of a hypoxic area. Finally, harmful algal blooms can be dangerous because they produce toxins that are harmful to animals and people. This last algae-related problem is the subject of the recent analysis, as my colleague Arohi Sharma describes. A Major Solution: The Clean Water Act Can Slash Pollution that Causes Harmful Algal Blooms Together, NRDC’s findings, along with our work in these areas over several decades, point to a common denominator: the public officials responsible for implementing and enforcing the Clean Water Act are not doing enough to test for and prevent nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. This post describes what effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act might look like. Numeric Nutrient Standards: One of the foundations of pollution control under the Act is the establishment of state standards identifying levels of pollutants that, if exceeded, will endanger water quality such that a water body might not be safe for whatever “designated uses” a state has identified for the water. (Designated uses include things like fishing, swimming, and drinking water supply.) Numeric standards help permit-writers establish discharge limits for facilities that release these pollutants and they also enable states to identify when water bodies need to be cleaned up. Nearly two decades ago, EPA instructed states to develop numeric standards or else the agency would step in, but this proved to be an empty promise. EPA’s own Inspector General issued a report 10 years ago saying states were falling down on the job and urged EPA to issue standards itself. But when NRDC and our partners petitioned EPA to do just that and sued to get a ruling on our petition, EPA furiously fought for its ability to dodge this responsibility and—at least to date—has managed to defend its do-nothing approach in court. This irresponsibility has consequences: EPA acknowledges that only one state has a full set of numeric nutrient standards for all of its waters and expects that, in 2021, the vast majority of states will have no numeric standards or will have standards for just a smattering of waters. EPA needs to act. The evidence is overwhelming that states either lack the political will or the technical capacity to establish these critically-needed numeric benchmarks. Enhanced Discharge Limits for Nutrient Sources: The Clean Water Act charges EPA with establishing industry-specific limits on their pollution, which are typically based on the control technology used by better-performing facilities in the industry.
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