Start Planning Now for Tighter Nutrient Rules

Water quality and enforcement programs face complex challenges, from nutrient loadings and stormwater runoff, to invasive species and drinking water contaminants.

By Kurt Tyler

On January 12, 2010, Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator, wrote in a memorandum to all EPA employees,

"Water quality and enforcement programs face complex challenges, from nutrient loadings and stormwater runoff, to invasive species and drinking water contaminants. We will continue comprehensive watershed protection programs for the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes." She continued, "We (The EPA) will work with states to develop nutrient limits...," and "we will also revamp enforcement strategies to achieve greater compliance across the board."

After reading this statement, I'm sure a lot of wastewater treatment plant operators and managers stopped for a moment. The first part has all of us nodding our heads in agreement— water quality does bring difficult problems that seem to be gaining momentum in our fight to protect the environment. But, what do "enforcement strategies," "nutrient limits," "watershed protection programs," and "greater compliance" really mean? For wastewater treatment plants, this sounds like more audits and bigger penalties. For states and municipalities, it sounds like an expensive endeavor which lacks clear understanding of what direction to move towards.

Some of the EPA's words are being acted upon already. In response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, a Tallahassee judge approved a consent decree requiring the EPA to develop numeric nutrient limits for the state of Florida. The questions about what to do began piling up just as fast as the estimated price tag to address the limits. The Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council published a study estimating the cost to meet the proposed EPA limits and it totaled between $24.4 billion and $50.7 billion!

The Chesapeake Bay, which has received much focus for nutrient monitoring and reduction, continues to gain additional attention from the EPA and the Obama administration. The President issued an executive order in May 2009 that requires a nutrient reduction acceleration plan begin by May 2010. In response to the Draft Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay, the six states that make up the watershed have requested $365 million in federal funding, just to set their numeric nutrient limits and have a plan to meet them.

Many states and watersheds are watching the situation in Florida and the Chesapeake and wondering how to reduce their own nutrient pollution before the EPA or environmental groups get involved. Nutrient trading programs have become a hot topic for everyone from wastewater treatment plants to the city utilities manager's office.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) study, How Nutrient Trading Can Help Restore the Chesapeake Bay, promotes nutrient trading as a viable option that reduces overall costs to lower nutrient loadings in watersheds. It demonstrates how nutrient loading contributors in a watershed can work together to reduce nutrients where it is less expensive and faster to implement - typically agriculture sources. Farmers can be paid through the programs to reduce their nutrient contribution by wastewater treatment plants and stormwater systems. This model makes sense when you consider that according to the WRI, a farm can reduce one pound of nitrogen load at close to 1⁄7th the cost of an equivalent stormwater program.

It is clear that nutrient load reduction will continue to be increasingly important to protect our waterways. It is not just Florida and the Chesapeake Bay. The Ohio River Valley, Mississippi Delta, Puget Sound and just about every other major watershed in the U.S. are on the nutrients radar. We all need to be prepared and involved in how it plays out by understanding the current situation and how best to address future requirements.

Now is the time to become more educated about nutrient dynamics in your watersheds and treatment plants. Learn about how nutrient levels can be reduced faster and with less expense, and recognize how trading programs can facilitate progress. Utilize this information to get your voice heard through your local organizations and state environmental groups.

There are solutions to nutrient pollution and it starts with all of us working together.

About the author:
Kurt Tyler is Vice President of Marketing for Hach, a global water analytics company based in Loveland, CO. He serves on WWEMA's Board of Directors.

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