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For cleaner water, Mizzou researchers call for updates to the Clean Water Act

Lynn Milberg measures the dissolved oxygen concentration of the water at Little Dry Wood Creek in Vernon County, Mo. Nutrient runoff promotes the growth of algae, which can cause oxygen levels to plummet.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Lynn Milberg, DNR water quality monitoring section chief, measures the dissolved oxygen concentration of the water at Little Dry Wood Creek in Vernon County, Mo. Nutrient runoff promotes the growth of algae, which can cause oxygen levels to plummet.

Nonpoint source pollution — contamination that does not originate from a single source — is “the biggest threat to water quality in the United States today,” with serious consequences for our ecosystem. That’s according to two University of Missouri researchers: attorney Robin Rotman and engineer Kathleen Trauth.

According to the National Water Quality Inventory, 70% of lakes, reservoirs and ponds and 55% of rivers and streams assessed in the U.S. are impaired by pollution and do not meet minimum water quality standards. As Rotman and Trauth point out in their latest paper, that has big consequences downstream.

Fertilizers and insecticides from the Mississippi River have helped create the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, which can no longer support living aquatic organisms. Those types of pollution have also left Midwestern lakes and ponds looking like pea soup due to algal blooms and eutrophication.

According to Rotman and Trauth, reductions in nonpoint source pollution will lead to significant improvement in the water quality of U.S. lakes, rivers, wetlands and coastal areas to the benefit of human and environmental health.

They say it will take an amendment to the Clean Water Act, passed nearly 50 years ago. The law did a great job cleaning up pollution that comes from a clear source, like a factory. But it doesn’t offer strong controls over nonpoint source pollution or require runoff reduction from states and landowners.

“It’s taken more of a voluntary approach — more of the carrot and less of the stick,” Rotman said.

Robin Rotman and Kathleen Trauth join St. Louis on the Air

Because of that, the question of what water bodies are covered by the Clean Water Act and how they should be regulated has been left to the courts.

“We've got 50 years now of litigation up to the present day, where the Supreme Court has been trying to tackle this issue,” Rotman said. “That's not good for anyone. The court shouldn't be making the law.”

Rotman and Trauth would like to see the Clean Water Act require that states enact controls on nonpoint source pollution. They also advocate for an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate agricultural pollutants that might inhibit drinking water ability. The amendments would, ideally, form a better synergy between the two laws.

“The Safe Drinking Water Act has fairly light regulations when it pertains to surface water quality; it's much more focused at what's happening in the drinking water treatment plant and in the distribution system,” Rotman said. “But if the Clean Water Act could be amended to have additional controls over source water, that would improve the raw water intake and ultimately improve drinking water quality.”

Overall, the pair hope their paper brings greater attention to how the current state-by-state approach to water quality is not working. The health of our waterways depends on a united, nationwide effort.

“Our waters don't respect state boundaries or county boundaries; it's really watershed boundaries,” Trauth said. “We need to have that perspective that everything is connected. It's all of our waters.”

Have a question or comment about the health of our region’s water sources? Send an email to talk@stlpr.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the AirFacebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.