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Nutrient Pollution Still Harms Our Nation’s Rivers and Streams

March 28, 2013

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released for comment a draft report entitled National Rivers and Streams Assessment 2008-2009 (Draft NRSA).  Comments on the Draft NRSA are due May 9, 2013.  For more information on submitting comments, you can download the Federal Register notice for the comment period.

The major findings of the Draft NRSA are that an estimated 55 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams are in poor condition for aquatic life; fair conditions are found in 23 percent of the waterways; and only 21-percent sustain good conditions that support healthy aquatic communities.  The major pollutants are the nutrients nitrogen, with excessive levels in 27-percent of the waterways and phosphorus, with excessive levels in 40-percent of the waterways.  In excess amounts, these nutrients stimulate blooms of algae and other aquatic plants that can deplete oxygen levels when the plant life decays.

This NRSA is the first national monitoring study of the overall condition of rivers and streams that has been conducted using a statistically-valid random sample approach.  The overall goals of the NRSA are to:

• Generate scientifically valid and environmentally relevant information on the condition of the nation’s river and stream resources;
• Identify key stressors to river and stream health and explore their relative importance; and
• Establish baseline information for future trends assessment.

The EPA used a statistical survey design with sites selected at random to represent the condition of the population of rivers and streams across the lower 48 states, from the largest ‘‘great rivers’’ to the smallest headwater streams.  The samples in the survey were taken by states and tribes at 1,924 sites.  To provide a baseline for comparison, the samples were compared to the least disturbed sites in similar ecological regions.

Intriguingly, the American Farm Bureau Federation objected to this baseline, suggesting that EPA should have compared the samples to conditions in rivers and streams already degraded by pollutant loading.  That method would have resulted in rosier looking statistics but the same high level of pollution and harm to aquatic life.

Agricultural production is one of the major contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus to the nation’s rivers and streams.  The Draft NRSA should be a signal to Congress that more needs to be done in the next Farm Bill to stem runoff and leaching of nutrients from agricultural operations into the nation’s waters.

A key step is to include the relinking of crop insurance benefits to conservation accountability requirements for erosion control and wetland protection.  In addition, a sodsaver provision would limit crop insurance incentives for farmers to convert native sod to row crop production, a process that both destroys grassland habitat for wildlife and increases nutrient loading into nearby waters.  Also important for water quality is full funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, with a new ranking system based solely on environmental benefits, and a robust Regional Conservation Parternship Program with explicit emphasis on targeted and innovative nutrient management projects.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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