U.S. EPA has failed to encourage state adoption of nutrient standards for water bodies and should set and enforce criteria itself in key places, the agency's Office of Inspector General said today.
EPA first outlined a strategy for promoting nutrient standards in 1998, noting that significant pollution problems still existed after passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act.
But despite EPA's publication in 2001 of recommended nutrient standards -- and a threat to enforce them if states didn't plan their own criteria by 2004 -- half the states had no numeric standards by the end of 2008.
And even states that did set standards failed to adopt them for all water bodies, the report says.
Meanwhile, nutrient pollution has worsened. The most famous example is the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone," which at 3,000 square miles is the second-largest oxygen-barren area in the world.
"EPA's current approach is not working," the inspector general wrote. "EPA has relied on the states to develop standards on their own without any meaningful monitoring or control. EPA did not establish priorities, enforceable milestones, or adequate measures to assess progress."
The report urges EPA to identify states or water bodies that are most seriously impaired and focus its limited resources there, perhaps issuing a water quality standard itself.
EPA made such a decision for Florida in January, six months after five environmental groups sued the agency to compel it to use its authority to craft nutrient quality standards for the state.
In a written response to the report, EPA's acting assistant administrator, Michael Shapiro, said he "generally concurs with the findings" but doesn't believe the agency should identify priority waters. That would entail "a substantial amount of process" and list existing Clean Water Act provisions, he said.
"We believe a greater benefit will be derived by developing a strategic approach to leverage resources and existing authorities to get more numeric water quality standards in place," Shapiro wrote. "This strategic approach would consider waters of national value, including waters impaired for nutrients and high quality waters of national significance."
But the inspector general notes that past EPA strategies have been ineffective.
"Developing another 'strategic approach' would not be responsive to the recommendations," the report says. "We believe selecting nationally significant waters and acting to set standards for nutrients in them is a minimal first step if EPA is to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act."
Most nutrient pollution is caused by agricultural runoff, over which EPA has limited authority. Some states have signaled that they also lack regulations or resources to compel farmers to change their practices to improve water quality, and the report notes that drafting such rules would be politically unpopular.
The report also found that the states' primary concern was protecting water quality within state lines. While Illinois, Iowa and Missouri are major contributors of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico, none had considered their impact on the gulf in developing their standards.
EPA's Ecological and Health Protection Branch told the inspector general that downstream states should develop their nutrient standards first, then use them to force upstream states to develop standards. But EPA so far has not tried to encourage this approach, the report says.