EPA Regional Focus: Nutrient Pollution, CSO/SSOs are Top Issues for Region 7

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By James Laughlin, WaterWorld Editor

EPA Region 7 oversees the heartland of America: Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Those four states include the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds, have a great deal of row-crop agriculture and confined animal feeding operations, and are home to two of the nation's most costly enforcement actions against wastewater utilities.

Kansas City, MO, and Saint Louis, MO, are the region's two largest cities and both face consent decrees focused on CSOs and SSOs that will have a combined cost of more than $7 billion, according to Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator for EPA's Region 7.

On May 18, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lodged a consent decree in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri against the City of Kansas City, MO. The consent decree requires the city to implement an Overflow Control Plan for its municipal sewer system to address longstanding violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The program arising from the consent decree will require the city to spend an estimated $2.5 billion over a 25-year work schedule on repairs, modifications and new construction to rebuild its sewer system.

At the time, it was one of the largest consent decrees ever against a major metropolitan area. Yet, in August 2011, the case against Saint Louis would beat that record.

The Department of Justice and EPA have lodged a consent decree in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD). The consent decree requires MSD to make extensive improvements to its sewer systems and treatment plants, at an estimated cost of $4.7 billion over 23 years.

The goal is to eliminate illegal overflows of untreated raw sewage, including basement backups, and to reduce pollution levels in urban rivers and streams.

"Kansas City in some ways led to St. Louis, and St. Louis in a lot of ways culminated this region's and even this agency's efforts to try to get major city sewer systems under consent decrees," Brooks said. "Kansas city really laid out some of the basic objectives EPA has working with these cities. The city had lots of overflows, substantial amounts of untreated raw sewage going into both the Missouri River and a couple significant tributaries. It was an unacceptable situation that came about through a combination of urban growth and suburban sprawl."

The Kansas City project is also notable because it was the first big metropolitan project to incorporate green infrastructure as part of the consent decree.

"We targeted that green infrastructure to areas that had been historically underserved and had been receiving way more than their fair share of SSO and CSO overflows and backups," Brooks said. "Although Kansas City will be doing some sort of classic gray infrastructure work, some of the earliest and most innovative work will be in green infrastructure – rain gardens, permeable payments, things designed to slow water down and retain it before it drops into the system."

The St. Louis consent decree is currently in the hands of the Federal Court. It has been criticized both for its cost and concerns that it would not adequately protect the environment. Still, Brooks expects it to win approval by the courts.

"Most of the early work will be focused on green infrastructure in the central city and older suburban areas where some of the sewer backups and overflows have been the most chronic," he said. "But again, there will be substantial gray infrastructure: a variety of holding tunnels and substantial construction work both above and below ground at plants and within the collection system."

The cost of controlling CSO/SSO discharges will be substantial in both Kansas City and Saint Louis, but the projects will help drive employment and have other benefits for the cities and region.

"There is no question that Kansas City and St. Louis will be job engines for the region. These projects will trigger substantial investment, employment, and purchasing that will ripple all through this region," Brooks said. "Fortunately, both Kansas City and St. Louis are really big centers for consulting engineering, so there will be employment felt by both large and small engineering firms throughout the region. I expect it will ripple out through the engineering colleges and certainly to the suppliers and vendors."

Nutrient Pollution

While sewer overflows are a concern in the large metropolitan areas, nutrient pollution is a concern across the region, in large part because of intensive agriculture and combined animal feeding operations. The upper Mississippi watershed and lower Missouri watershed both suffer from substantial pollution in their tributaries. Most of those tributaries flow through areas that are heavily cropped for corn and soybeans.

"Everybody in the region, whether they farm or are responsible for water quality, knows that we've got a substantial challenge on our hands," Brooks said.

Region 7 staff have been working with stakeholders including the Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and with watershed improvements districts and states agencies.

"We have put most of our efforts recently into the states of Iowa and Missouri. Iowa is in some ways an important test case because it's got drainages that flow both directions into the Mississippi and Missouri and it also is in a lot of ways the most intensively cropped part of the American landscape. It generates a huge amount of fertilizer use," Brooks said.

"We've been meeting pretty substantially with the state Department of Agriculture and the state department of Natural Resources and the NRCS in Iowa trying to figure out how we can link together everybody's ability to affect land use decisions about cropping and fertilizing."

The goal is to target key watersheds and develop plans to improve water quality through changes in land use and fertilizer practices. To do that, the agency is working with stakeholders to educate the public and get landowner groups to agree to techniques designed to protect water quality.

"It's been a real process of give and take," Brooks said. "There are thousands of landowners in these key watersheds, and we don't permit their operations. They are not covered by the Clean Water Act. So we have to think about ways of getting them to buy into this and show them that it's in their interests."

CAFOs

EPA Region 7 is at the center of the North American meat industry, and is a leading producer of both cattle and hogs. There are approximately 1500 permitted Combined Animal Feeding Operations in the four states of Region 7.

"We have been making pretty steady progress to bring operations under permits where they are discharging. I think we've had really good luck using a mixture of education and outreach and targeted enforcement in spreading the permits to where they need to go and getting people to comply with those permits once they have them," Brooks said.

"I think there's been a substantial mindset shift on the part of both cattle and hog folks on the understanding that permits are part of doing business."

Looking Ahead

While Region 7 staff have seen trends pointing in the direction of water quality improvements, there are still substantial challenges ahead for the region, Brooks said.

"We are not satisfied with where water quality is now, especially in some of the key watersheds in places like Iowa and Missouri. We have a ways to go," he said. "What's crucial is that landowners, producers, and CAFO operators acknowledge the need to do things better.

"People understand that it's in everybody's self interest to keep the nutrients on the crops where they belong and not have them run down into the water. Everybody understands it's not in the interest of the cattle industry or the pork industry to have unpermitted CAFOs discharging pollutants or mismanaging manure. We've come a long way."

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