Voluntary Actions Prove Ineffective for Mississippi River Pollution Reduction

posted on Friday, November 18, 2016

The Mississippi River, an inspiration to Mark Twain and revered by the communities on its boarders has been suffering from phosphorus and nitrate pollution for decades under lackluster leadership from the Environmental Protection Agency and under-funded voluntary actions taken by the states surrounding it. A report Decades of Delay released Thursday, November 17, 2016 by the Iowa Environmental Council in partnership with the Mississippi River Collaborative details the failure of EPA leadership to tackle phosphorous and nitrogen pollution that causes a Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can exist and harms drinking water and recreational waters throughout the basin.

In Iowa, the Des Moines Waterworks that provides drinking water to over 500,000 people in central Iowa, has been struggling for decades to provide safe drinking water due to high levels of nitrate in the two rivers that are their water source.  In the 1980's Des Moines built a nitrate removal system that is the largest in the world and has worked for decades to support voluntary efforts in the watershed to help reduce farm runoff pollution that is the major source of the nitrate pollution. But these voluntary efforts, and even their expensive treatment system has not been enough in ensure safe water; and Des Moines continues to struggle to keep up with the historically high nitrate levels they’ve experienced these past few years. 

Des Moines is not the only community in Iowa that is dealing with nitrate pollution in their drinking water.  There are 260 public water supplies in Iowa identified as being "highly susceptible" to nitrate pollution ranging from small rural communities to our largest cities -- and private drinking water wells are at even greater risk from nitrate pollution. ​A recent report by the Iowa Environmental Council discusses the public health concerns for nitrate in drinking water.

In Iowa, there are also growing public health concerns related to swimming and other recreational contact with polluted waters.  Too much phosphorus and nitrogen has led to increased occurrence of toxic algae blooms in our lakes and rivers. Over the past two years we have had record-breaking numbers of beach advisories at our state park beaches due to unsafe levels of microcystin toxin caused by the algae. 

This toxin is also a concern for the safety of drinking water, as we saw in 2014 when the City of Toledo, Ohio had to shut down their drinking water supply for several days due to a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie. Then in 2015, there was a 600 mile-long toxic algae bloom in the Ohio River that lasted for several weeks and caused the cancellation of recreational activities in several locations along the river.  Drinking water sources were alerted and fortunately were able to take precautions to avoid a Toledo-like shutdown of their water systems.  

Microcystin toxins caused by algae blooms are a growing concern for drinking water utilities. In September 2015 Microcystin toxins were identified in the Mississippi River at the drinking water intakes for the cities of Moline, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. Then in August 2016, the Des Moines Water works identified microcystin toxins in their finished water. Fortunately, in both cases, toxin levels were low enough that treated drinking water was safe. But this is a wake up call that more must to be done to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to protect our drinking water quality as well as the safety of our recreational waters.

Despite these serious concerns, Iowa currently has stopped working on setting numeric water quality standards to limit nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to protect these important water resources.  Instead of setting goals for water quality, Iowa has chosen to address nutrient pollution through our state Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  Unfortunately, this strategy relies mostly on voluntary programs that are not well-funded and lack specific timelines, benchmarks, and water quality monitoring to measure progress. To solve the regional and state water quality problems caused by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution we need coordinated action, led by EPA, to significantly reduce this pollution that comes from many sources.  

The first recommendation in the report is that EPA ensure that numeric nitrogen and phosphorus standards that are necessary to protect these important uses are developed in all 10 states that border the river.  But to be effective, standards must become goals that are met by local pollution reduction activities by sources that are contributing to the problem.  The necessary activities to achieve clean water goals are outlined in the other four report recommendations.

  1. nitrate pollution
  2. phosphorus pollution
  3. toxic algae
  4. water quality