October 6, 2016--EPA Announces National Wastewater Nutrient Pollution Census (Circle of Blue)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls nutrient pollution the “single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality.” Rising concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways, the agency reports, are a significant threat to human health, ecosystems, and local economies. Nutrient pollution has reached an alarming intensity in many of the nation’s waterways. The shutdown of the drinking water system in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014 was the most visible example of what is now a coast-to-coast challenge. More than 40 percent of lakes, rivers, and streams, according to the EPA, have concerning levels of phosphorus. Mats of green muck in the St. Lucie estuary earlier this summer prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in four coastal counties. As of mid-August, authorities across the country had issued more than 250 health advisories this year for toxic algae. A warming climate adds another degree of difficulty. “While many entities have taken meaningful actions to reduce nutrient pollution, there continues to be a pressing need for concerted action to reduce nutrient pollution nationwide,” Joel Beauvais, head of the EPA water office, wrote in a letter sent to state officials on September 22.

Despite the urgency, the EPA lacks basic information for understanding the scope of the problem and recognizing potential solutions. It does not, for instance, have a comprehensive database on the location and performance of the nation’s more than 16,000 wastewater treatment facilities, which, for some bays and rivers, are the largest source of nutrient pollution. Only one-third of the largest facilities have enforceable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus discharges, and less than two-thirds are required to monitor the two pollutants. To bridge the knowledge gap, the EPA announced last week that it is developing a national census of wastewater treatment facilities. The goal of the study, which will proceed in phases over four to five years, is two-fold: first, to map the facilities and identify the treatment technology they use. The second, is to determine how effective the facilities are at removing nutrients, with an emphasis on successful, low-cost strategies that lower energy demands and do not require a large capital investment. Existing case studies indicate that such outcomes are possible. “This census is extremely important for setting a baseline as we think about infrastructure improvements in the coming decades that target resource recovery and energy-neutral or energy-positive wastewater treatment,” George Wells, an assistant professor at Northwestern University who studies wastewater treatment, told Circle of Blue. To view the full article visit the Circle of Blue.