EPA’s first comprehensive survey of the health of U.S. streams and rivers finds more than half – 55 percent – are in poor condition for aquatic life. The agency says 27 percent of the nation’s waterways have excessive levels of nitrogen, and 40 percent have high levels of phosphorus.
The EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment (NRSA) does not specifically cite agriculture as a culprit in the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the waterways. In fact, the report commends farming and livestock production for being the principal economic driver in most of the land area along the length of the Mississippi River and other major waterways.
Generated from 2008-2009 data from 2,000 sites across the country – the most recent available – the assessment shows too much nitrogen and phosphorus in much of the water, enough to constitute nutrient pollution and cause significant increases in algae that harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive.
EPA said in a statement issued with the survey that nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, “resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.”
EPA Office of Water Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner said the health of U.S. rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters “depends on the vast network of streams where they begin, and this new science shows that America’s streams and rivers are under significant pressure.” She said investment must continue “in protecting and restoring our nation’s streams and rivers as they are vital sources of our drinking water, provide many recreational opportunities, and play a critical role in the economy.”
Still, some agriculture interests were surprised at what one called the “alarmist” tone of EPA comments related to the assessment.
Don Parrish, director of regulatory affairs for the American Farm Bureau, said the issues raised by the assessment are “incongruent with what’s going on out there in U.S. agriculture,” including enhanced conservation programs, precision technology and other advances that are reducing farm nutrient runoff.
He said EPA is comparing the water samples taken from ecological regions around the country to the “least disturbed” sites in each region.
Parrish said that in order to interpret the data collected by the NRSA field crews, they need to establish a benchmark condition, “but unfortunately, EPA chose a benchmark that coincides with what we would expect to find in pristine waters, untouched by man.”
Parrish acknowledges that setting reasonable expectations is one of the biggest challenges for any assessment of ecological conditions. But the Farm Bureau official says EPA failed to do that.
He says some level of human impact on water resources is a given and that using the very best of today’s conditions as a yardstick sets everyone up for failure.
The “least-disturbed standard,” which can also vary from region to region, is an “unrealistic approach that sets unreasonably high expectations,” he said. “There are far more appropriate standards that EPA could have selected.”
“It’s kind of appalling for EPA to put out a report . . . that sets standards at an unattainable level,” Parrish said.
The EPA assessment follows lawsuits filed last spring by environmental groups charging that the EPA has refused to address the causes of the summertime “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – a situation the groups say is “a critical pollution problem [EPA] has acknowledged for decades.”
The two legal actions filed seek action from the agency on nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which scientists say stimulates excessive growth of algae, prompting a biological process – hypoxia – that severely depletes oxygen levels in aquatic ecosystems and chokes marine life.