Clean solutions for dirty water: stopping nutrient pollution from laying waste to our waterways

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The sight is commonplace these days: bright blue-green algae bloom scums on the surface of lakes or lapping against beaches, bringing with them foul odors, dire warnings against swimming, and shorelines strewn with rotting fish. Devastating as they are, these blooms are the symptom of a larger and more ominous problem as some of our most iconic waterscapes Cape Cod, Great Bay, Lake Champlain, and Narragansett Bay – are slowly being choked by nutrient pollution.

Nutrient pollution is caused by excess nitrogen or phosphorus in the water – traced to fertilizer runoff from agriculture and lawns, animal waste from factory farms, and improperly treated or overflowing sewage. As algae feeds on this glut of nutrients, it grows rapidly, devouring oxygen and making the water uninhabitable for other species. Such pollution closes beaches, destroys habitat, taints drinking water, and causes fish and shellfish kills where thousands can die at once. Ultimately, this pollution can create massive “dead zones” empty of any living thing. Dead zones already beset parts of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound, and they’re growing.

The EPA has been slow to establish controls on nutrient pollution to maintain the water quality dictated by the federal Clean Water Act. Without adequate limits, polluters have little motivation to fix the problem. CLF is leading the fight against this growing, but controllable, threat to clean water, and pushing for strict controls on the sources and stronger enforcement of the law.

On Cape Cod, CLF is challenging EPA regulators for failing to require Clean Water Act permits for septic systems, which are fouling the Cape’s precious bays with unchecked discharges of nitrogen pollution. In New Hampshire, CLF is pushing for advanced pollution controls at wastewater treatment plants where discharges of nutrient-laden wastewater into the Great Bay estuary threaten the entire watershed.

In Lake Champlain, CLF has focused on changing the math by which water health is calculated. The EPA is now requiring the state to develop enforceable limits to pollution aimed at finally cleaning up the ailing lake, which has been in decline for decades.

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Addressing this solvable problem requires good science-based planning, financial investment, individual commitment, and political will. CLF is working to ensure strong protections so that the choice for communities is not one of for clean water or against, but rather how to act quickly and cost-effectively to preserve this most fundamental source of health and prosperity.

A POTENT COMBINATION In late 2013, an EPA report found that, over the next 30 years, climate change could increase phosphorus levels in Lake Champlain by an average of 30%, with some models showing a 46% spike. Sobering news for a lake already crippled in many areas by nutrient pollution.

But even that dire prediction is optimistic, because EPA looked only at climate change’s impacts – warming waters, increased precipitation, and more severe storm events – if the amount of pollutants in the lake holds the line. And right now, we’re not holding the tine.

The report’s implications for nutrient-impaired waters across the country are significant – more pollution, and its devastating by-products, like toxic blue-green algae blooms, will only stress our waters more.

CLF has sued EPA to force consideration of climate impacts in pollution-control plans for Lake Champlain and Cape Cod. As we monitor the agency’s consideration of climate in its programs, we are also leading the push for a national policy to address this growing threat.

RELATED ARTICLE: highlights

* With 12% of Rhode Island covered in impervious surfaces, pollution from stormwater runoff is a major concern. CLF, in partnership with the RI Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team, released Storm water Management Districts in Rhode island: Questions and Answers, which proposes creating stormwater management districts that can charge property owners a fee proportional to the runoff they release. The fees would help fund pollution abatement projects while also encouraging greener infrastructure.

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* Nitrogen pollution plagues New Hampshire’s Great Bay estuary, depleting eelgrass beds and threatening fish populations. To address this serious problem, in 2012 EPA issued a new permit imposing strict limits on nitrogen pollution from Newmarket’s sewage treatment plant. While Newmarket residents voted to upgrade the plant, neighboring communities appealed the new limits. CLF argued against the towns” appeal and, in December 2013, the Environmental Board of Appeals rejected it.

* Through its Environmental Enforcement Project, CLF files citizen suits against illegal polluters. When suits are settled, payments can go toward Supplemental Environmental Projects that support research and restoration projects. More than $300,000 dollars in payments have been made to date, with projects ranging from marsh restoration on Cape Cod to nutrient monitoring in the Mystic River.

* Lake Champlain has long suffered from phosphorus pollution that has led to severe, and sometimes toxic, blue-green algae outbreaks. After decades of legal fights, CLF recently celebrated an important milestone when the EPA required Vermont to create a plan to meet pollution control targets – ensuring the state reduces pollution from sewage treatment plants, farms, paved areas, and poorly maintained roads. CLF will be monitoring the plan’s creation and implementation to make sure it is meaningful and effective.

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