Managing Nutrient Pollution in Our Water

Managing Nutrient Pollution in Our Water

Runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen from farming, stormwater, and wastewater treatment plants is an increasing issue for aquatic environments around the world. While phosphate and nitrogen are natural and necessary components of aquatic ecosystems, too much can be dangerous. Excess amounts of these nutrients, also known as nutrient pollution, is detrimental to plants, wildlife, waterways, and our own public health. Although this issue is not new, there’s been an uptick in awareness as water and wastewater utilities aim to improve drinking water quality and meet regulatory requirements.

 

Problems with Excess Nutrients

Nutrient pollution is a widespread problem that affects rivers, streams, lakes, bays, and coastal waters across the country.

 

Algal Blooms

Increased levels of phosphorus and nitrogen can cause harmful algal blooms that ultimately lead to the production of toxins and elevated bacteria levels that are harmful to people and wildlife. In fact, nutrient pollution can cause issues in water quality both near and far from the location where the nutrients enter the water source. A study from the US Water Alliance noted an instance of water pollution where excess nutrients from the Mississippi River Basin caused toxic algal blooms 2,300 miles downstream in the Gulf of Mexico. The algae later decomposed, all while consuming large amounts of oxygen and creating dead zones in which aquatic organisms could not survive.

 

harmful algal blooms covering a body of water

 

Treatment Costs

When it comes to treating wastewater and providing high-quality drinking water to customers, costs will rise for water utilities should the water be saturated with excess nutrients.

 

Recreational Opportunities

The problems that stem from excess nutrients in water bodies negatively impact the livelihood of those who use the water for recreational purposes. According to the EPA, the US tourism industry loses nearly $1 billion each year, while the commercial fishing industry loses tens of millions.

 

Sources of Excess Nutrients

Most excess nutrients in the water originate from agricultural runoff, urban stormwater, and discharge from wastewater treatment plants. There are two types of sources – “point” sources and “nonpoint” sources. Point sources typically refer to industrial and municipal wastewater treatment plants. Nonpoint sources refer to agricultural and stormwater runoff.

 

Point Sources

$1.4 trillion in public funding has been invested in improving municipal wastewater treatment facilities to address nutrient pollution since 1972.

 

 

Nonpoint Sources

The primary approach to reducing nutrient pollution of agricultural nonpoint sources has been the implementation of ‘Best Management Practices’. Best practices vary on a farm-by-farm basis and have the potential to be cost-effective or expensive, depending on several factors. Because farm practices are unpredictable due to cropping patterns, soil properties, hydrology, and weather, many farmers are hesitant to change their current practice. Compared to point sources, a mere $5 billion has bene spent by the federal government to incentivize farmers to implement strategies for nutrient reduction. Additionally, when it comes to nonpoint sources of excess nutrients including stormwater, a lot more can be done on the ground level. Being mindful of what goes down the drain in our yards, and on the streets, can have a huge impact.

 

Efforts for Reducing Nutrient Pollution

There are many programs in place on both the federal and state level to help reduce nutrient pollution levels. Below are just a few.

 

The Clean Water Act

This Act regulates point source discharge and requires all dischargers to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the state. NPDES permits enforce limits on the concentration of nutrients that can be discharged into surface waters. Under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, the EPA also supports state efforts to reduce nonpoint sources of nutrient pollution with its $160 million grant program. According to the EPA, activities supported by these programs may include implementation of state nonpoint source management plans, state regulatory and non-regulatory programs, watershed prioritization and planning, and nonpoint source monitoring.

 

Financing

Several loans exist specifically for upgrades and construction of wastewater facilities. The State Revolving Fund program offers low-interest loans for wastewater treatment infrastructure, and the USDA’s Rural Development Water and Environmental Programs provide long-term, low-interest loans and grants for the construction of these facilities in rural communities. The USDA and EPA also support the reduction of nutrient pollution by incentivizing voluntary action by nonpoint sources. There are a handful of programs that provide a mix of funding directly to farmers, or to groups at the community or state level.

 

Partnerships

The EPA and five other federal agencies co-lead the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force. This federal initiative was developed in 2008 (and adopted by 12 states) to reduce nutrient loads by 20 percent by 2025 and by 45 percent by 2035. Other partnerships created to reduce the impacts of nutrient pollution include Source Water Collaborative and the Animal Agriculture Discussion Group.

 

Outreach

The EPA is working with its partners to combat nutrient pollution in water bodies throughout the country. They’ve created a wealth of communication and outreach materials to increase awareness of the causes, effects, and solutions to nutrient pollution.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, we must continue addressing the problem of nutrient pollution in water bodies across the country. While there are several initiatives in place to combat the harmful effects of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the environment, nutrient pollution is increasing at a quicker rate than what is being done to eliminate it. Federal and state agencies, farmers, and even you can play a tremendous role in reducing nutrient pollution. Learn what you can do within your community here.

Earth Day 2016 — 10 Simple Steps to Improve the Environment

earth_day_2016Earth Day, which falls on April 22 each year, is celebrated globally by over one billion people and is largely credited with being the catalyst for the modern environmental movement. The first Earth Day was celebrated in the United States in 1970, and was quickly followed by passage of the Clean Air Act later in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. In 1990, Earth Day expanded to a global level, being celebrated in 141 countries and bringing environmental issues to the forefront of the global scene. Earth Day has since become the world’s largest global observance.

While Earth Day boasts some impressive statistics, simple changes are still the easiest and most effective way to practice environmentalism in our daily lives. If all one billion people who celebrate Earth Day were to implement just one small change, the cumulative effect would be monumental. At Tata & Howard, we are big believers in continuously improving our personal habits in support of the environment, in the form of small steps. For example, this year we expanded our recycling efforts to include comprehensive, single stream recycling, and we replaced the corporate office’s Keurig with an environmentally-friendly Bean2Cup brewer. So in celebration of Earth Day, we’ve compiled 10 simple steps to improve our environment that we can all easily implement in our daily lives:

Plastic pollution has become epidemic
Plastic pollution has become epidemic

1. Eliminate the use of paper plates and plastic utensils
Paper plates are made from virgin wood, contributing to deforestation, and are manufactured by paper mills that use toxic chemicals that can contaminate waterways. Speaking of water, did you know that it takes half a gallon of water to produce ONE 10-inch, medium-weight dinner plate? And plastic utensils are no better. Plastic cutlery requires petroleum and chemicals to produce, fossil fuels to transport, and is typically made from non-recyclable plastic.

2. Use a refillable water bottle — and fill it with tap water!
Most families toss almost 90 pounds of plastic in the trash every year, and plastic takes about 500 years to biodegrade. An abysmal one in seven plastic bottles is recycled, contributing heavily to the world’s plastic pollution problem. In addition, bottled water is hardly any better than tap water in terms of quality and safety. Bottled water costs more per gallon than gasoline, even though it is very frequently just tap water with some extra minerals thrown in for taste. Drinking tap water from a refillable water bottle is smart not only for the environment, but also for your health — and your wallet.

3. Choose reusable over disposable
As mentioned, paper and plastic both have a significantly negative impact on the environment. Instead, bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store, use cloth napkins instead of paper, replace paper towels with microfiber cloths, and choose cloth diapers for baby.

leaky_faucet4. Repair leaky faucets and toilets
Leaky toilets can waste up to 200 gallons of water per day — or the equivalent usage of an entire family of four — and leaking faucets can waste up to 3,000 gallons of water per year. Repairing these leaks will help save our world’s most precious resource, and will also lower your water bill.

5. Collect rainwater for use in gardens
Collecting rainwater is easy with a rain barrel, which catches stormwater runoff from rooftops. This collected water can be used later to water lawns, gardens, and flower beds. Rain barrels come in a variety of styles and colors, and can make a beautiful addition to your landscaping while helping to protect the environment.

6. Turn off and unplug all electronics when not in use
Computers, cell phones, printers, video gaming consoles, tablets, wearable fitness trackers — these all depend on electricity, and are often left plugged in and running, even when not in use. Completely shutting down and unplugging these devices when not in use will help to reduce your carbon footprint — and your electric bill.

7. Buy only fair-trade, sustainable coffee
Traditionally grown coffee is an environmental nightmare: it is one of the largest contributors to the decimation of our world’s rainforests, is the second-most pesticide laden food crop (second only to tobacco), and is often dependent on unfair labor practices. By choosing fair trade, eco-certified coffee, you are assuring that the coffee you are drinking is both environmentally friendly and humane. Not one to brew your own joe? Bring a reusable mug when visiting your local coffee shop.

white_clover_groundcover
White clover is hardy, disease-resistant, and stays green even during moderate drought

8. Green up your lawn
No, not with fertilizer — with ground cover! Outdoor watering accounts for over 30% of household water usage in the United States, and planting ground cover can reduce that outdoor water usage as much as 50%. Ground cover does not require supplemental watering, remains green even during times of moderate drought, and helps prevent soil compaction. In the northeast, white clover is a pretty and popular choice.

9. Start a compost pile
Composting our vegetable and lawn scraps helps the environment in many ways. Organic waste in landfills is typically covered by trash and is therefore forced to decay in an airless state. This anaerobic decay produces methane gas, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Therefore, composting our vegetable and lawn scraps helps to minimize the effect that landfills have on climate change while also reducing the speed at which landfills are, well…filled. Also, compost helps to feed and improve the soil, minimizing the need for chemical fertilizers.

safer choice10. Switch to eco-friendly cleaning products 
Traditional cleaning products rely heavily on synthetic chemicals, which are now understood to be dangerous to both the environment and our health. This year, EPA launched an initiative called Safer Choice to help individuals and businesses choose more environmentally friendly products. Safer cleaning products for every type of use, from stainless steel to carpet to laundry to dish soap, can be found on EPA’s Safer Choice website.

These are just a few ways in which we can do our part to green up the environment and to reduce our carbon footprint. This Earth Day, let’s all vow to make a few simple, small changes to improve the environment in which we all live. While one person changing one habit may be seemingly insignificant, one billion people changing that same one habit would have an unprecedented impact on the health of our world. Happy Earth Day!

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Clean Air Day 2015: 52 Years of Clean Air

clean_air_dayWe celebrate Clean Air Day on December 17 each year in honor of the Clean Air Act, which was first passed on that day in 1963. The Clean Air Act, which is a federal law, was originally adopted in an effort to control air pollution. It was one of the first environmental laws in the United States and it helped pave the way for future environmental safeguards, including the Clean Water Act of 1972, which protects our nation’s waters. Both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in coordination with state and local governments. To this day, the Clean Air Act remains one of the most exhaustive air quality laws in the world.

Why the Clean Air Act was formed

Air pollution is largely attributed to the Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 1700s in England and spread to the United States by the early 1800s. Industrialization brought significant air degradation in the form of deforestation and chemical and particulate pollution, and the advent of gas-powered automobiles only exacerbated it. With no regulations, air quality left many in the early Industrial Age with asthma, respiratory illness, and heart disease. “Killer smogs” were not uncommon, often blanketing manufacturing towns in a thick, toxic fog.

donora_pa_smog
The Killer Smog of 1948, Donora, PA

On October 27, 1948, the town of Donora, Pennsylvania experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in American history when atmospheric conditions trapped pollution from The Donora Zinc Works of the American Steel and Wire Company. While the town often experienced smog overnight, it typically dissipated in the morning. However, on that October day in 1948, cold air formed a temperature inversion that trapped the noxious mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and heavy metal dusts that bellowed continuously from the smokestacks of The Donora Zinc Works, which employed most of the town. By the time a rain storm ended the smog on October 31, 7,000 people, or half the town’s population, had fallen ill, and 20 had died. During the disaster, The Donora Zinc Works refused to cease operations, only closing on October 31 after the damage had been done.

The nation reeled from the disaster and demanded regulations concerning air pollution. In 1949, the First National Air Pollution Symposium was held in Pasadena, CA, and in 1950, President Harry Truman assembled the U.S. Technical Conference on Air Pollution in Washington, D.C. From these events, a 1952 resolution on health research passed in the House, but, with the Donora disaster now four years in the past and fading in memory, the measure failed in the Senate. However, another environmental disaster took place in 1952 and spawned U.S. Congress to finally take action against air pollution.

great_smog_1952
An Arsenal goalkeeper peers into the smog, which was so thick the game was eventually stopped. Photograph: PA, 1952

Considered still to be the worst man-made environmental disaster in history, even surpassing the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, the Great Smog of 1952 in London is considered to be the catalyst for the global environmental movement. On December 5, 1952, temperatures in London, England plummeted, causing Londoners to burn more coal to keep their homes warm, which released excessive amounts of hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, and particulates into the air. At the same time, the frigid air created a temperature inversion — similar to Donora’s in 1948 — that held the poisonous smog close to the ground. Visibility was less than one foot, causing many businesses to shut down and residents to stay home. The toxic smog lifted four days later, and what Londoners found shocked them: over 100,000 Londoners had fallen ill, and over 4,000 had died. To make matters worse, over the next few months over 8,000 additional people died from respiratory or heart complications as a direct result of the lethal smog.

Interestingly enough, New York City also experienced a killer smog in 1953, where 200 people succumbed to the noxious fumes over a five-day period; however, the event was not reported until 1962, when history repeated itself with a similar smog that killed another 200 people in the Big Apple. Because it was not reported, the 1953 smog of New York City had no effect on the passage of the Clean Air Act.

Spurring global action, the Great Smog of 1952 expedited the passing of both Great Britain’s and the United States’ first federal legislations pertaining to air pollution. In 1956, Great Britain passed the Clean Air Act that regulated smoke, and in 1968 the Act was extended to include industry. Similarly in the United States, the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act allocated three million dollars per year for five years to the U.S. Public Health Service to fund air pollution research, air pollution control research, and technical and training assistance to states. While the Act brought air pollution to the federal level and provided funding for research, no federal regulations were actually formed. It wasn’t until The Clean Air Act of 1963, enacted on December 17 and celebrated annually since then as Clean Air Day, that the first federal legislation involving air pollution control was established.

smog_beijing
Smog blankets Beijing, China

China is now experiencing an air pollution crisis similar to those experienced by the United States and Great Britain in the mid-20th century, and finds itself learning lessons that have already been learned. This month, Beijing was issued its first ever red alert in December over pollution levels deemed hazardous to health, forcing the capital to shut down schools and construction sites in an effort to take cars off the road and to keep people indoors. Capitalizing on their country’s global third place ranking for air quality, Canadian company Vitality Air shipped 500 bottles of “mountain fresh air” to China two months prior to the red alert — and quickly sold out, even with a hefty price tag of about $18.50US per bottle. Another shipment of 700 bottles is scheduled this month.

Milestones

The Air Quality Act of 1967 authorized enforcement procedures involving interstate transport of pollutants, and major amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, 1977, and 1990. A brief overview of milestones of the Clean Air Act is as follows:

The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955:

  • First federal air pollution legislation
  • Funded research on scope and sources of air pollution

Clean Air Act of 1963:

  • Authorized a national program to address air pollution
  • Authorized research into techniques to minimize air pollution

Air Quality Act of 1967:

  • Authorized enforcement procedures involving interstate transport of pollutants
  • Expanded research activities

clean_air_act_1970
President Nixon signs the Clean Air Act of 1970

Clean Air Act of 1970 greatly expanded federal enforcement and the federal mandate, requiring comprehensive federal and state regulations for both stationary and mobile pollution sources:

  • Established National Ambient Air Quality Standards
  • Established requirements for State Implementation Plans to achieve them
  • Establishment of New Source Performance Standards for new and modified stationary sources
  • Establishment of National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants
  • Increased enforcement authority
  • Authorized control of motor vehicle emissions

1970 was a big year for the environment. In addition to the comprehensive expansion of the Clean Air Act, the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970 as a means of bringing national awareness to the fact that the environment needed protection. Later that same year, on December 2, the EPA was established to consolidate a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement activities into one agency to ensure environmental protection.

1977 Amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1970:

  • Authorized provisions related to prevention of significant deterioration
  • Authorized provisions relating to non-attainment areas

1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1970 increased enforcement authority, established a national permits program for stationary sources, and addressed acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxic air pollution:

  • Authorized programs for acid deposition (acid rain) control
  • Authorized controls for 189 toxic pollutants, including those previously regulated by the national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants
  • Established permit program requirements
  • Expanded and modified provisions concerning National Ambient Air Quality Standards
  • Expanded and modified enforcement authority

In Conclusion

Boston, MA consistently measures "very low" for air pollution
Boston, MA consistently measures “very low” for air pollution

Today, United States air quality is ranked in the top 20% globally, and improves with each passing year. Federal and state regulations, more sensitive air quality monitoring, improved remediation methods, safer manufacturing processes, more efficient automobiles, and increased public education and awareness are all ways in which we as a nation have decreased air pollution in the United States. As we celebrate Clean Air Day and the 52nd anniversary of the  Clean Air Act, we can all breathe easy knowing that we as a nation are committed to continually improving our environment so that it is safe now and for future generations.Subscribe-to-our-newsletter1

EPA Releases Draft Report in Preparation for Expanded Clean Water Act Jurisidiction

globe water hands smallThere is no question that clean water remains our nation\’s most valuable natural resource. It is not only necessary for providing drinking water and maintaining public health, but also for manufacturing, farming, fishing, tourism, recreation, and energy development. And while the need for an abudant supply of clean water impacts us all, the methods used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect our nation’s waters has come under heated debate.

Background
In 1972, in an effort to protect our nation’s water supply, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted the Clean Water Act (CWA), which defined “Waters of the United States.” The Act provided protection to these defined streams, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and other waterways from the high levels of pollution to which they were being subjected. Since 2001, some of these waters and wetlands have lost federal protection due to misinterpretations and confusion over Supreme Court rulings in regard to which waterways fall under CWA jurisdiction. Citing our nation’s imperative need for clean water, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) determined that clarification of CWA jurisdiction was necessary.

The Report
On August 24, 2013, the EPA solicited public comment on a new draft science report titled Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence. Public comments received by November 6, 2013 will be provided to the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an independent peer review panel, prior to their December 16-18, 2013 meeting. The purpose of this draft science report is to provide compelling scientific evidence in support of a joint EPA/Corps rulemaking to increase protection of US water by clarifying the authority of the CWA. This clarification has been requested by many entities including members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, and the public.

EPA and the Corps’ primary focus is jurisidiction over our nation’s network of smaller waters – waters that feed larger ones, and, according to EPA, need protection in order to keep our water safe from upstream pollutants. In addition, EPA and the Corps are including protection for non-drinking water wetlands, maintaining that these wetlands provide community benefits, such as pollution containment and filtering, water storage, flood safety, as well as economic benefits for US businesses, including energy producers and farmers, who rely on ample sources of clean water.

The EPA states, “This draft science report presents a review and synthesis of the scientific literature pertaining to physical, chemical, and biological connections from streams, wetlands, and open-waters to downstream waters such as rivers, lakes, estuaries, and oceans. This review of more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications summarizes the current scientific understanding of the connectivity of small or temporary streams, wetlands, and certain open-waters, evaluated singly or in aggregate, and the mechanisms by which they affect the function or condition of downstream waters. The goals of the report are to (1) provide a context for considering the evidence of connections between rivers and their tributary waters, (2) summarize current understanding about these connections and associated downstream effects, and (3) discuss factors that influence the degree of connectivity or the magnitude of a downstream effect.”

The draft science report makes three initial conclusions:

  1. All streams, regardless of their size or how frequently they flow, are connected to and have important effects on downstream waters. These streams supply most of the water in rivers, transport sediment and organic matter, provide habitat for many species, and take up or change nutrients that could otherwise impair downstream waters.
  2. Wetlands and open-waters in floodplains of streams and rivers and in riparian areas (transition areas between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems) are integrated with streams and rivers. They strongly influence downstream waters by affecting the flow of water, trapping and reducing nonpoint source pollution, and exchanging biological species.
  3. Additional information is necessary for wetlands and open-waters located outside of floodplains and riparian areas before determining that they do not directly impact downstream waters.

The proposed rule maintains existing exemptions and exclusions, including those pertaining to agriculture and the production of food, materials, and fuel, as detailed below:

  • Agricultural stormwater discharges
  • Return flows from irrigated agriculture
  • Normal farming, silvicultural, and ranching activities
  • Upland soil and water conservation practices
  • Construction and maintenance of farm or stock ponds or irrigation ditches
  • Maintenance of drainage ditches
  • Construction or maintenance of farm, forest, and temporary mining roads
  • Prior Converted Cropland, including the role of USDA
  • Waste Treatment Systems

In addition to existing exclusions, the rule also proposes the following new exemptions:

  • Non-tidal drainage, including tiles, and irrigation ditches excavated on dry land
  • Artificially irrigated areas that would be dry if irrigation stops
  • Artificial lakes or ponds used for purposes such as stock watering or irrigation
  • Areas artificially flooded for rice growing
  • Artificial ornamental waters created for primarily aesthetic reasons
  • Water-filled depressions created as a result of construction activity
  • Pits excavated in uplands for fill, sand, or gravel that fill with water

In short, the report finds that all of the nation’s streams and most of its wetlands are connected and have biological, chemical, and physical impact on our nation’s rivers and lakes, and therefore fall under CWA jurisdiction.

Implications
EPA has stated that their final report will take into consideration all public comment as well as the findings of the independent peer review from their upcoming December meeting. When finalized, this report will provide scientific evidence on the connectivity of almost all of our nation’s waters, and will in turn pave the way for broad CWA jurisdiction, including over private property. While protection of our nation’s waters needs to be of primary focus, greatly expanded CWA jurisdiction will increase permitting burdens and significantly impact landowners across the country.

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