ABCs of Federal Water Quality Regs

February 6, 2016 01:18 AM

Stay ahead of the curve by understanding the nation’s web of nutrient-runoff concerns 

If you’ve opened a magazine, newspaper or website in the past year you’re aware of water quality issues caused by nutrient runoff. However, the issue of water pollution has been around for a long time, with many federal laws, regulations and management practices to prove it. These guidelines have influenced today’s state nutrient-reduction strategies, which could change farming tomorrow. Staying informed is critical.

Nutrient runoff isn’t all from farmers—lawns, factories and wastewater facilities are at fault too. This mishmash of pollution leads to environmental and potential human health issues such as eutrophication, hypoxia and methemoglobinemia (blue-baby syndrome). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with other agencies, track these issues and offer solutions they claim reduce risk.

What is now known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) dates back almost 70 years, when it was called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The name changed in 1972 when the law was rewritten. Amendments altered the legislation in 1977 and 1987.

“The CWA is important for much more than just farmers—all citizens need to understand it,” says Tim Joice, water policy director at the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for water quality. “CWA, as originally envisioned, is not a major agriculture-regulating mechanism. Its primary focus is point-source pollution [with visible, direct causes]. Nonpoint-source pollution [when the cause isn’t immediately clear] is primarily what relates to farmers.”

Glossary of Terms

Eutrophication: Excess nutrients in a body of water lead to dense growth of plant life, namely algae, that leads to death for fish and other species from lack of oxygen.
Hypoxia: Oxygen depletion in environments such as water to a level in which animals cannot survive. In the Gulf of Mexico, hypoxia is defined as a concentration of oxygen less than 2 parts per million.
Methemoglobinemia: High nitrates in drinking water decrease oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin in babies that leads to death.
Point Source: Water pollution that comes from a single, discrete place, such as a pipe.
Nonpoint Source: Water pollution affects a water body from sources such as polluted runoff from agricultural areas draining into a river.

As the primary federal law governing water pollution, the 234-page CWA recognizes the role nonpoint-source pollution plays in water quality. The Secretary of Agriculture works with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA and other agencies to determine what waters need the most attention. From there, agencies work with farmers and landowners to adopt water quality best management practices, pitching in technical assistance and cost-share funds.

Like other federal environmental statutes, the CWA is administered by the EPA in coordination with state governments. That’s where state nutrient-reduction programs come in.

For example, the Illinois Fertilizer Act ensures a 75¢ per ton assessment on all bulk fertilizer sold in Illinois is allocated to research and educational programs focused on nutrient use and water quality. Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative focuses on outreach and education, statewide practice implementation, targeted demonstration watershed projects, and tracking and accountability. Minnesota is providing $221 million in state funds to support a wide range of activities, including the development of watershed restoration and protection strategies, ground water and drinking water protection, and monitoring and assessment. Wisconsin is using state and CWA funding to expand the use of conservation practices in 45 agricultural watersheds and critical sites in the Mississippi River Basin. 

“Part of the way the CWA works is every state that has the authority to implement CWA has to assess waterways and stream conditions, check habitats, and determine what water health looks like, which is then submitted to the EPA,” Joice says.

The CWA is a springboard for many laws, regulations and action plans. For example, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was created to reduce hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico and improve water quality in the Mississippi River Basin after states submitted an assessment to EPA showing the gulf needed improvement.

The task force created the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan with a goal of decreasing the dead zone to about 2,000 sq. miles of hypoxic water by 2015. However, at the end of 2015, the dead zone was almost 6,000 sq. miles (about the size of Connecticut), and the goal was pushed to 2035.

Every five years the task force reassesses the action plan to find better ways to address excess nutrient loads. The most recent update includes three primary goals: reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone by reducing nutrient runoff; protect waters of 31 states in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin; and improve the quality of life of each state involved in the plan.

“Over time, the task force developed goals, and states were eventually required to create nutrient-reduction strategies,” Joice says. Currently 12 states—Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin—have or are finalizing plans.

Illinois finalized its Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy in July 2015. “The 2008 revision to the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan called for individual state nutrient strategies,” says Rebecca Clark, communications manager for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “The genesis of the plan is the original passage of the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act passed by Congress in 1998, which created a federal task force and ultimately resulted in adoption of the 2001 Hypoxia Action Plan.”

State nutrient strategies provide options and incentives to help reduce nonpoint-source pollution by lowering nutrient runoff, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, into watersheds. “Strategies for agricultural phosphorus-loss reduction statewide include reduce soil erosion from cropland, increase living cover on land in agricultural production and emphasize nutrient use efficiencies,” says Wayne P. Anderson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “For nitrogen-loss reduction in agriculture, we emphasize the four ‘Rs’: right timing, right rate, right source and right placement.”

The task force holds meetings once or twice a year to review state efforts and learn from each other, Joice says. “There is a very heavy dose of agricultural expertise on the task force.”

In many states, nutrient-reduction practices are voluntary, but some wonder if that will always be the case.

“I would argue EPA has no intention in further regulating agricultural runoff,” Joice says. “I don’t think it’s realistically possible from an implementation standpoint. That’s why the CWA, from an ag perspective, is voluntary.”

Farmers have the option to try new practices to reduce runoff, which is different from many other industries. 

“It should be viewed as an opportunity to show how progressive and innovative the agricultural community has been and continues to be,” Clark says. “It should be viewed as a way to demonstrate more mandatory or regulatory approaches are unnecessary to achieve continued improvement in soil and water conservation.”

Farmers should be aware of what the CWA requires for agriculture, how the Gulf Hypoxia task force affects your state and what new regulations could be coming down the pike. Stay current on what local, state and federal regulations are voluntary versus mandatory and what could influence a change from one to the other.

This story is part of an educational series on the consequences of nutrient runoff. It’s only a matter of time before regulations are the norm. For more on your state nutrient-reduction plan and resources to proactively reduce runoff, visit                                                                         

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