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Environmentalists call on EPA to force states to limit fertilizer runoff into waterways

A dead zone with sediment from the Mississippi River carries fertilizer to the Gulf of Mexico.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Environmental advocates are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to manage nutrient pollution from states that border the Mississippi River. 

The Mississippi River Collaborative, a group of environmental policy experts, recently released a new reportthat describes how the 10 states along the river are not making progress in reducing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that eventually make its way down to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. 

Fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns, and discharge from sewage treatment plants are major sources of nutrient pollution. Overabundant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus can degrade waterways, cause fish kills and create harmful algal blooms and dead zones. The report also warns that it could also pose a threat to drinking water sources.

In the last two decades, the EPA has provided states with some resources to set standards for nutrient pollution, but the agency does not require states to conduct any monitoring or impose limits. The Mississippi River Collaborative argues that EPA officials should compel states to do so under the Clean Water Act.

"If we're not monitoring for pollutants, then we don't know the extent of the problem," said Alicia Lloyd, clean water policy coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.   

Lloyd is also one of the co-authors of the new report, which notes that Missouri ranked as one of the highest nutrient polluters along the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River collaborative sued the EPA in 2012 for not taking regulatory action on nutrient pollution. The Missouri Coalition for the Environment also sued the EPA in 2014 to try and force the state of Missouri to set stricter limits. 

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources had previously submitted rules on nutrient pollution to the EPA, but they were rejected by federal officials in 2011. State officials have not drafted new rules since then. 

The Mississippi River Collaborative also wants more effort on the state and federal level to fund sustainable farming practices to reduce water contamination, such as having farmers use cover crops. 

"We need to increase these practices across the landscape to protect the waters we all need and share," Lloyd said. 

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.