Investigation: Few results flowing from nutrient reduction plans– Read Florida BMAPs

Courier In: Investigation: Few results flowing from nutrient reduction plans-- Read Florida BMAPs | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River*

The following article is about egregiously excessive nutrient loading in water, due mostly to agriculture, and what it is doing to our nation:

CEDAR RAPIDS — America’s Midwest faces worsening trouble with undrinkable well water, recreational lakes choked with toxic algae and water treatment plants requiring budget-busting upgrades to remove pollution washing from farm fields and industries.

What does this have to do with Florida and the Santa Fe River?


Throughout the article, just substitute Florida for  Iowa, Midwest, etc. and you have a pertinent and appropriate sequence.  The Gulf Hypoxia Task Force is Florida’s BMAP program.  The goal is similar, the progress is similar, the money spent is similar, the failure is similar.

Yet our leaders are active and working hard to clean up our problem.  Here is what an EPA spokesperson said about their failed program: “We are facilitating dialogues with states across the country to determine the feasibility of approaches to reducing excess nutrients that complement existing regulatory programs, such as using market-based mechanisms.”

In other words, they are having meetings and talking about it.  Sound familiar?   You bet.

The conclusion is that we are not ready to address the problem because the cure is too painful– choosing a clean environment or money.  The money wins every time, in Iowa or in Florida.

When  our leaders are too sick from drinking polluted water to function, then maybe they will decide to try to address the cure.  That may be too late.

Read this disheartening and sickening article here in the Courier.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-

Investigation: Few results flowing from nutrient reduction plans

  • ERIN JORDAN Cedar Rapids Gazette
  • Updated  

CEDAR RAPIDS — America’s Midwest faces worsening trouble with undrinkable well water, recreational lakes choked with toxic algae and water treatment plants requiring budget-busting upgrades to remove pollution washing from farm fields and industries.

A government task force said in 2008 it would cut nitrate and phosphorus pollution 45 percent by 2015 — both to help the Gulf of Mexico, where the nutrients have created a sprawling dead zone in which wildlife cannot survive — and to protect the health and safety of Midwest waters.

Now 10 years later, the dead zone remains a problem, the 45 percent goal has been shoved back 20 years and, although millions have been spent in nearly every state along the Mississippi River, it’s not clear any progress is being made, a four-month investigation by The Cedar Rapids Gazette found.

“Their goals for reduction in the dead zone at the Gulf are not being met — not even close,” said Kris Sigford, a retired water quality program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “In many cases, we’re going the wrong way.”

The Gulf’s oxygen-deprived dead zone, called that because fish and other organisms must swim away or die, has an average size over the past five summers of 5,772 square miles. That’s three times larger than the task force’s goal of about 1,900 square miles.

The group established the 45-percent reduction in nitrate and phosphorus running into the Mississippi because that’s what scientists think is needed to shrink the dead zone.

The task force’s 2008 Action Plan, a 64-page document that doesn’t describe enforcement options, asked each of the 12 central U.S. states to develop their own plans for reducing nutrients. The states are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

The Gazette reviewed all 12 state strategies, talked with dozens of state agency leaders and found the following:

— The Gulf Hypoxia Task Force said every state should complete a strategy by 2013. But only four did. Kentucky and Tennessee still have only drafts.

— Only five states established baseline numbers for nitrate or phosphorus loads in surface water, making it impossible in the other seven to know if improvements are being accomplished.

— Five states haven’t updated their strategies after initial publication, contrary to advice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

— Only one state — Minnesota — requires farmers to implement conservation strategies to reduce runoff.

— All 12 states now require water monitoring at some facilities, usually large municipal wastewater treatment plants.

— All the states monitor water quality at public beaches to some degree, leading to more than 1,400 closures or advisories for high levels of bacteria or toxins from algae this past summer. More than 200 fish kills were reported in the states in 2017, with many caused by contaminants washing into waterways.

How is Iowa doing?

Iowa reported in 2017 to have reduced annual nitrate loss by 1,375 tons in 2016 through the 302,000 acres of cover crops planted with state or federal subsidies. These same acres cut phosphorus going into waterways by 104 tons, the state said.

This type of estimate, made by several other task force states also, uses credible scientific modeling. But some water scientists say it tells only half the story.

The estimates don’t account for other agricultural practices, such as an increased use of underground drainage tiling in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, that may be working against the goals.

“I think that’s a valid criticism,” said Nancy Stoner, who served as acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water from 2011 to 2014 and wrote a 2011 memo widely used as guidance by the states. “We need to account for land that is newly tiled, newly cropped and newly developed.”

Chris Jones, a University of Iowa research scientist who monitors water quality with sensors at about 70 Iowa locations, said estimating nutrient reductions based on implementation of best practices has been used more as officials realize the 45 percent reduction goal is distant.

“It’s human nature for us to look for successes,” he said. “None of us want to think that we’re working for nothing.”

Jones and his UI colleagues reported last spring Iowa’s nitrate discharge is disproportionate to the amount of water flowing into bordering rivers, signaling the increased nitrate share isn’t from weather.

The Iowa Legislature earlier this year passed a bill providing $282 million over 12 years toward nutrient reduction goals, with $4 million available in the first year. Critics say it’s barely enough to make a dent in the multibillion dollar problem.

EPA is ‘pleased’

Environmental groups up and down the Mississippi River have been maddened by the slow pace of the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force and the state-led efforts to reduce nitrate and phosphorus.

The Mississippi River Collaborative in 2012 sued the EPA in federal court, alleging the agency was letting states get away with doing nothing.

The groups want the EPA to put the entire basin on a pollution diet that sets limits for pollutants and requires dischargers, both industrial and agricultural, to reduce the flow.

The EPA had used this regulatory approach on the East Coast’s Chesapeake Bay in 2010.

“The Chesapeake bay is being cleaned up,” Stoner said. “It’s not a perfect process, but it’s a very successful process for making nutrient reduction. The same thing could be done in the Mississippi River.”

Short of putting the Mississippi River basin or the Gulf on a pollution diet, the EPA could step up enforcement of discharger permits or force states to set numeric limits for lakes and rivers.

Regulating the Mississippi River watershed, which drains 40 percent of the continental United States, would be a much bigger challenge than the Chesapeake Bay. Such a project would be “unprecedented and complex” as well as “highly resource and time intensive,” argued President Barack Obama’s EPA in a 2011 response to environmental groups.

The EPA under President Donald Trump has been even more disinterested, leaving two of seven federal seats on the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force vacant.

“Looking at the full suite of data available, EPA is pleased with the progress being made by the Hypoxia Task Force,” an agency spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday after declining a Nov. 12 Gazette request for an interview. When asked what the EPA could do to make sure the states reach nutrient reduction goals, she said:

“We are facilitating dialogues with states across the country to determine the feasibility of approaches to reducing excess nutrients that complement existing regulatory programs, such as using market-based mechanisms.”

Environmental groups initially won their case in U.S. District Court, but an appeals court sent it back down, where Judge Jay Zainey in the Eastern District of Louisiana sided with the EPA Dec. 15, 2016.

“Presumably, there is a point in time at which the agency will have abused its great discretion by refusing to concede that the current approach — albeit the one of first choice under the (Clean Water Act) — is simply not going to work,” he wrote. “But for now, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that EPA’s assessment was arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law.”

Sigford, the retired Minnesota environmental group leader, fears it will take a public health emergency like the lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., or an economic blow like the tourism-killing algal blooms in Florida, for Midwest officials to push for changes.

“To me, I think you need terrible local problems to get action,” she said. “The outstanding question at this point is: How long do we have to wait?”

This story was done as part of the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. Marquette students Meaghan Kaupe, Mark Lisowski and John Steppe contributed to this report.


  1. Unfortunately, it is going to have to be a full blown crisis before we as a society respond – and even then, our response mechanism is waning (look at Flint or Puerto Rico). If it at all “hurts” the economy, all the political will we can muster just enables us to kick the can down the road.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top
Skip to content