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 report finds.

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

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