EPA's Fertilizer Pollution Policy Memo: What's Missing

posted on Monday, April 11, 2022 in Water and Land News

Fertilizer pollution (primarily nitrogen and phosphorus) has been and continues to be the most prominent and persistent water quality problem in Iowa and across much of the country for the last few decades. U.S. EPA has struggled to adequately address the issue, and states have not made much progress by relying on voluntary participation. In Iowa, the load of fertilizer entering surface waters has been increasing.  

EPA last issued a policy memo on fertilizer pollution in 2011, commonly referred to as the Stoner memo. It recommended that states develop “nutrient reduction strategies” (NRSs) and set water quality standards called numeric nutrient criteria (NNC) to reduce fertilizer pollution in our nation’s waterways. Although many states adopted NRSs and numeric criteria, the approach was not uniform across the Mississippi River Basin. Iowa adopted its NRS in 2013 but has refused to adopt NNC despite two IEC petitions for rulemaking on the subject.  

EPA issued a new fertilizer pollution policy memo on April 5, 2022. Overall, it is a small step forward, but it does not require the practices necessary to resolve our fertilizer pollution issues.  

The major strategies outlined in the memo are to: 

  • Deepen collaborative partnerships with agriculture.   
  • Redouble efforts to support states, tribes, and territories to achieve nutrient pollution reductions from all sources.  
  • Utilize EPA’s Clean Water Act authorities to drive progress, innovation, and collaboration. 

The strategies continue to rely on a voluntary approach to pollution reduction that has proven itself to be inadequate. EPA needs to take a stronger stance on requirements and enforcement to see actual progress on reducing fertilizer pollution in our rivers, streams, and lakes. 

Analysis of EPA’s Priorities 

Some of the priorities outlined are improvements, but they will not solve the major impediments to nutrient pollution reduction in our waterways: 

1. “Working with EPA’s Regional Offices to memorialize, in Performance Partnership Agreements or appropriate grants, state commitments to evaluate, update, and submit for EPA review State Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies. These strategies should align with existing statutory and regulatory frameworks and target resources to the most important opportunities for progress. States with existing strategies will be able to use them as a basis for revisions.” (pg. 5, emphasis added) 

Review of state NRSs is a positive step, because they are, generally, woefully deficient. Iowa’s NRS does not have any timeline, or even a single set of actions to pursue. EPA’s memo does not list what, if anything, will be required for inclusion in state NRSs. IEC advocated for the inclusion of timelines and benchmarks in the Iowa NRS, among other recommendations.  

However, review and strengthening of the NRS is just the first step. Implementation is the key to achieving results. IEC analysis has shown that at the current pace of implementation, nutrient reduction goals won't be achieved in tens of thousands of years.  

A simple review of the state NRS shows that it lacks teeth. In theory, a Performance Partnership Agreement (PPA) could provide much-needed accountability for states. These agreements define state and EPA roles, and hold states accountable for upholding their commitments. If a state does not meet the basic requirements of Clean Water Act oversight, EPA can revoke the delegation of authority to a state. However, EPA has never revoked delegated authority before.  

2. “…EPA regions are encouraged to negotiate commitments to establish numeric nutrient criteria in performance partnership agreements.” (pg. 7) 

“Supporting and strongly encouraging states to rely on numeric targets for water quality assessment, CWA Section 303(d) assessment and lists, TMDL targets, and NPDES permitting. Office of Water expects that states will either adopt numeric nutrient criteria into their water quality standards or commit to use numeric targets to implement applicable narrative criteria statements.” (pg. 7) 

Further encouragement of states to adopt numeric nutrient criteria (NNC) has been the approach of EPA for more than a decade. The language in the memo regarding NNC is stronger, but states are still not required to adopt numeric standards or even provide EPA with a timeline for NNC consideration. Iowa has repeatedly refused to adopt numeric criteria despite convening a committee of nutrient science advisors and petitions by IEC to adopt the criteria. 

3. “Promoting state use of the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund for nonpoint sources, including expanded use of innovative approaches like pay-for-success models.” (pg. 6, emphasis added) 

Economic incentives are necessary for progress on water quality, but a slice of the State Revolving Loan Fund does not change the economic picture. These loans would compete against enormous direct subsidies for production in the federal farm bill. Iowa has received nearly $1 billion per year in commodity subsidies over the past 25 years. Iowa already has low-cost loans available for agricultural practices. Meanwhile, point sources will need the SRF for expensive upgrades to provide clean drinking water by treating agricultural pollution in source water. 

4. “Initiating a rulemaking to explicitly state that NPDES permits may include conditions allowing market-based approaches, including trading, to meet applicable effluent limits.” (pg. 6) 

Some communities, such as the City of Cedar Rapids with the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, have worked on innovative solutions to implementing more conservation practices in their watersheds. One potential market-based approach is the trading of pollution credits. This system would allow communities to make more investments upstream instead of focusing entirely on technological treatment upgrades.

However, a market cannot exist without numeric nutrient criteria. NNC would establish a cap on allowable pollution and without that, there is no real market for achieving reductions. EPA is putting the cart before the horse by allowing permits to include trading without requiring NNC. 

5. “Engaging with states on an EPA memorandum that outlines near term actions to support environmental justice and other disadvantaged communities through their nonpoint source pollution programs.” (pg. 7) 

“Working with entities that can help support state adoption and implementation of strategies to better support disadvantaged communities.” (pg. 7) 

We strongly support inclusions of environmental justice priorities in fertilizer pollution reduction initiatives. Water infrastructure is extremely expensive, and frontline communities facing the burden of pollution need more support. We look forward to working with EPA and the state to ensure funding priorities fulfill this aim. 


EPA’s memo articulates incremental changes on a problem that has been growing for decades. We need leaps forward, not tweaks to a failing approach. While EPA oversight of nutrient reduction strategies and pressure for states to adopt numeric nutrient criteria is progress, the scale does not match the scope of the water quality problems Iowans face. To ensure clean drinking water, safe recreation, and a healthy climate, we need greater action. 

  1. clean water
  2. nitrate pollution
  3. nutrient reduction strategy
  4. phosphorus pollution
  5. water quality