Report: Stronger EPA Leadership Needed for Mississippi River
Stronger EPA leadership is needed to help improve water quality in
the Mississippi River and the northern Gulf of Mexico, according to a
new report announced on Oct. 17 by the National Research Council.
A more concerted effort is needed to ensure that the river is
monitored and evaluated as a single system, said the committee that
wrote the report. Each of the 10 states along the river corridor
conducts its own programs to monitor water quality. However, state
resources devoted to these programs vary widely, and there is no single
program that oversees the entire river, making it an "orphan" in terms
of monitoring and assessment of its water quality, the report states.
The committee recommends that EPA take the lead in coordinating these
tasks along the river.
"The limited attention being given to monitoring and managing the
Mississippi's water quality does not match the river's significant
economic, ecological and cultural importance," said committee chair
David A. Dzombak, Blenko Professor of Environmental Engineering and
director of the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and
Research at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. "In addressing
water quality problems in the river, EPA and the states should draw
upon the useful experience in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where for
decades the agency has been working together with states surrounding
the bay to reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality. EPA
should demonstrate similar leadership for the Mississippi River."
The report evaluates efforts to implement the Clean Water Act along
the Mississippi, which flows 2,300 miles from Minnesota's Lake Itasca
to the Gulf of Mexico. The river is used by millions of people along a
10-state corridor for drinking water, commercial shipping and
recreation. The Mississippi River also is home to many valuable
ecosystems, all of which depend on the river's water quality.
Measures taken under the Clean Water Act have successfully reduced
much point source pollution, such as direct discharges from factories
and wastewater treatment plants, the report states. However, many of
the Mississippi's remaining pollution problems stem from nonpoint
sources, mainly nutrients and sediments that enter the river and its
tributaries through runoff, the committee said. Nutrients, such as
nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers, create significant water
quality problems in the river itself and contribute to an
oxygen-deficient "dead zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Sediments
present a more complex problem. In the upper Mississippi, sediments are
plentiful and considered a pollutant, while in the lower river, they
are too scarce -- a shortfall that is contributing to losses of coastal
wetlands in southern Louisiana.
The Clean Water Act addresses nonpoint source pollution only in a
limited manner. Since the Mississippi's water quality also is affected
by physical structures that the law cannot alter, such as dams and
levees, the Clean Water Act cannot be the only means for improving
water quality in the river and Gulf, the report states. However, the
Clean Water Act can effectively address many aspects of pollution in
these waters if the law's provisions are comprehensively implemented.
Efforts to monitor and improve water quality in the Mississippi are
complicated by the river's interstate nature. Under the Clean Water
Act, states are responsible for establishing water quality standards
and for monitoring water quality. However, many states that are
bordered by the Mississippi River devote few resources to monitoring
and assessing the river, and there is little cooperation among states.
To diminish nutrient pollution, EPA should exert the federal
leadership that the Clean Water Act allows and work with states to
develop water quality standards that protect the Mississippi River and
the northern Gulf of Mexico, the report states. The agency also should
work with states to develop a federal Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL),
or its equivalent, for nutrient pollutants for the river and northern
Gulf of Mexico. Mandated by the Clean Water Act, a TMDL is a numerical
limit on the amount of a pollutant that a water body can accept and
still meet its water-quality standards.
The states along the Mississippi River corridor need to improve
their cooperative activities, the committee said. In five states, the
Upper Mississippi River Basin Association has promoted many cooperative
water quality studies and other initiatives. However, there is no
similar organization for the lower-river states, which should strive to
create one. EPA also should support better coordination among states
and among its four regional offices along the river corridor, the
In addition, EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
should work together more closely to reduce harmful runoff from
agriculture. USDA's conservation programs for protecting water quality
should target areas that contribute higher levels of nutrient and
sediment runoff to the river, the committee said.
More information on the report, "Mississippi River Water Quality and
the Clean Water Act: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities," can be
accessed at http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12051.