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America's Midwest faces worsening trouble with undrinkable well water, recreational lakes choked with toxic algae and water treatment plants requiring budget-busting upgrades to remove pollution washing from farm fields and industries.
A government task force said in 2008 it would cut nitrate and phosphorus pollution 45 percent by 2015 — both to help the Gulf of Mexico, where the nutrients have created a sprawling dead zone in which wildlife cannot survive — and to protect the health and safety of Midwest waters.
Now 10 years later, the dead zone is growing, the 45 percent goal has been shoved back 20 years and, although millions have been spent in nearly every state along the Mississippi River, it's not clear any progress is being made, a four-month investigation by The Gazette found.
“Their goals for reduction in the dead zone at the Gulf are not being met — not even close,” said Kris Sigford, a retired water quality program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “In many cases, we're going the wrong way.”
The Gulf's oxygen-deprived dead zone, called that because fish and other organisms must swim away or die, has an average size over the past five summers of 5,772 square miles. That’s three times larger than the task force's goal of about 1,900 square miles.
The group established the 45-percent reduction in nitrate and phosphorus running into the Mississippi because that's what scientists think is needed to shrink the dead zone.
The task force's 2008 Action Plan, a 64-page document that doesn't describe enforcement options, asked each of the 12 central U.S. states to develop their own plans for reducing nutrients. The states are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The Gazette reviewed all 12 state strategies, talked with dozens of state agency leaders and found the following:
- The Gulf Hypoxia Task Force said every state should complete a strategy by 2013. But only four did. Kentucky and Tennessee still have only drafts.
- Only five states established baseline numbers for nitrate or phosphorus loads in surface water, making it impossible in the other seven to know if improvements are being accomplished.
- Five states haven't updated their strategies after initial publication, contrary to advice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Only one state — Minnesota — requires farmers to implement conservation strategies to reduce runoff.
- All 12 states now require water monitoring at some facilities, usually large municipal wastewater treatment plants.
- All the states monitor water quality at public beaches to some degree, leading to more than 1,400 closures or advisories for high levels of bacteria or toxins from algae this past summer. More than 200 fish kills were reported in the states in 2017, with many caused by contaminants washing into waterways.
How states are faring
It's impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons between the states on how they are living up to their goals because the federal government, which created the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, let each chart its own path.
Unsafe Drinking Water: The Midwest has some of the nation's highest levels of nitrate in groundwater because of fertilizer applied to farmland. Millions of Midwesterners rely on private wells, most never tested. Nitrate in drinking water has been linked to health problems, including infant methemoglobinemia — blue baby syndrome — a life-threatening condition reducing the blood's ability to carry oxygen.
Lost recreation: Toxin-producing algal blooms or high levels of bacteria caused more than 1,400 closures or swim warnings at public beaches last summer in the 12 states in the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force.
Dying Fish: The hypoxia task force states together had more than 200 reported fish kills in 2017, with most determined to be caused by contaminants washing into waterways.
Without real pressure from the EPA, few of the states have consistent funding, some aren't documenting what steps they're taking and there's little urgency, despite the clock ticking on an interim deadline of seeing a 20 percent reduction in nitrate and phosphorus by 2025.
The 2,300-mile Mississippi River starts as a small stream at Minnesota's Lake Itasca. The Land of 10,000 Lakes with a $15 billion tourism industry has reason to worry about its water quality, especially with nitrates becoming a growing problem in southern Minnesota.
Mankato, with just under 40,000 people, will spend about $2 million next year digging another well into the Mount Simon aquifer. The city blends aquifer water with draws from the Blue Earth River and the Minnesota River, both of which flow into the Mississippi River.
The federal nitrate limit for safe drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter. Rivers and streams running through agricultural areas often surpass that in the spring, when melting snow and rain wash fertilizer from the fields.
In the early 2000s, nitrate levels in the rivers supplying Mankato's drinking water started to climb, officials said. The Blue Earth River averaged 10.1 mg/l in 2015 and 12.2 mg/l in 2016 — up from 4.9 mg/l in 2011, according to data from the plant. The Minnesota River rose to 9.3 mg/l in 2016, an increase from 3 mg/l in 2011.
A consultant told city officials in 2017 drilling a new well was one of the least expensive options for safe drinking water, with other plans ranging from $3.4 to $23 million.
'Hopefully, the nitrate levels won't get totally out of hand and we'll be able to handle it with just the new well,' said Mark Winson, the city's public utilities director. 'The first well will probably take us through the next five to six years.'
Minnesota is the first of the 12 states to legally impose best management practices on farmers. A 2015 law requires farmers to create perennial vegetation buffers between their crops and lakes, rivers and drainage ditches. A 2017 amendment allows alternatives with equivalent water quality benefits.
Wisconsin focused its strategy on phosphorus, mainly because that is what's causing algal blooms on Green Bay.
'In freshwater systems like Green Bay, it's the phosphorus that's the primary driver,' said Kevin Fermanich, a professor of Geoscience and Environmental Science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Wisconsin, which reported a phosphorus baseline of about 4,750 tons in 1995, has put limits on phosphorus dischargers, such as wastewater treatment plants and factories, since 2011, according to its 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
This emphasis on slashing phosphorus has helped in Wisconsin, where a long-term trends database created by the state shows phosphorus in decline since the 1960s. But the database shows nitrate rising — a troubling trend Wisconsin's strategy doesn't address.
Iowa reported in 2017 to have reduced annual nitrate loss by 1,375 tons in 2016 through the 302,000 acres of cover crops planted with state or federal subsidies. These same acres cut phosphorus going into waterways by 104 tons, the state said.
This type of estimate, made by several other task force states also, uses credible scientific modeling. But some water scientists say it tells only half the story.
The estimates don't account for other agricultural practices, such as an increased use of underground drainage tiling in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, that may be working against the goals.
'I think that's a valid criticism,' said Nancy Stoner, who served as acting assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water from 2011 to 2014 and wrote a 2011 memo widely used as guidance by the states. 'We need to account for land that is newly tiled, newly cropped and newly developed.'
University of Iowa researchers reported last spring Iowa's nitrate discharge is disproportionate to the amount of water flowing into bordering rivers, signaling the increased nitrate share isn't from weather.
The Iowa Legislature earlier this year passed a bill providing $282 million over 12 years toward nutrient reduction goals, with $4 million available in the first year. Critics say it's barely enough to make a dent in the multibillion dollar problem.
Illinois, one of only two states reporting nutrient reduction results compared with baseline numbers, said nitrate loads fell 10 percent during the 2011-2015 period from 1980-1996. Because the measurements were taken in average precipitation years, officials are pretty sure the decline isn't due to low water flows from 2011 to 2015.
Preliminary estimates of 2014 to 2018 show even more progress — a decrease of 16 percent from baseline, according to Greg McIsaac, a University of Illinois emeritus professor who continues to track nutrient loading for the state.
But it's not all good news for Illinois. Average annual phosphorus loads were up 17 percent between the baseline and 2011 to 2015.
Missouri has not established baseline numbers nor numeric limits for water pollution.
'Missouri is focused on finding out what the effectiveness is of the practices before having numeric goals.' said Kurt Beckman, the Missouri Department of Natural Resource's agricultural liaison.
Missouri is one of the few task force states with regular funding for nutrient reduction efforts. A one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax in place since 1984 funneled $635 million from 1986 to 2014 to help Missouri farmers implement conservation practices, the state said.
The program provides 75 percent of the cost of conservation strategies, including expensive projects like bioreactors — big mulch pits that filter water from underground drainage tile — estimated to cut nitrate by half.
Ohio is the farthest task force state from the Mississippi River. But since the Ohio River is the largest tributary, what happens in Ohio is important to the Gulf.
The primary water quality focus in Ohio is Lake Erie, which has had large algal blooms for eight of the last 10 summers, according to the National Weather Service. In 2014, microcystins from the algae contaminated the drinking water of 400,000 residents in and around Toledo.
Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, who again may run for president in 2020, has signed a host of bills to monitor and regulate fertilizer application to improve water quality. In July, he issued an executive order declaring eight watersheds in distress, but it was stalled after the Ohio Farm Bureau and some Ohio Republicans complained.
While Ohio doesn't have historical baseline numbers for nitrate and phosphorus, officials did compute five-year averages of nutrient loading in the Ohio River from 2013 to 2017. Compared with those numbers, Ohio has seen 'no clear decrease in loading yet,' a 2018 Nutrient Mass Balance Study found.
Indiana hasn't set a baseline, instead equating conservation practices with nitrate and phosphorus losses, said Jordan Seger, deputy director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.
The 2008 Action Plan recommends states create water quality trading programs that allow nitrate and phosphorus-generating facilities to purchase credits to pay for agricultural conservation practices. So far, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio are the only task force states to do this.
The Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Project, which the three states formed in 2012, is the largest such program in terms of geographic area and number of credits available for purchase, said Jessica Fox, senior technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute, which runs the program.
Kentucky requires agricultural facilities to complete an Agriculture Water Quality Plan that includes which best management practices will be used to protect waters.
But farmers don't have to turn in their plans. And a state survey showed only about 25 percent of farmers actually had implemented their plans, said Pete Goodmann, Kentucky Division of Water director.
'Now to get cost share you have to show you have an ag water quality plan,' Goodmann said. But 'we have to figure out ways to incentivize it that isn't just tied to money. Maybe some pressure from the Walmarts of the world to say 'This milk comes from a certified farm'.'
Goodmann is talking about a program like Minnesota's voluntary water quality certification, which offers farmers who implement conservation practices incentives like recognition and priority for technical and financial assistance from the state.
Kentucky has not computed baseline numbers and has just started putting nutrient limits on some discharging facilities, Goodmann said.
Another state skipping discharger permit limits except in cases where required by the federal government, Tennessee instead is identifying municipal wastewater treatment plants that can make small changes without costing a lot.
'We think the first step should be optimization because some plants have seen really good results,' said Jennifer Dodd, director of the division of water resources at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. 'If it doesn't work, may have to go to tax base and raise money for upgrades.'
Ten of 15 Tennessee municipal wastewater facilities in a 2015-2016 pilot project showed the ability to reduce nitrate or phosphorus levels just by using existing equipment differently.
Some Tennessee officials don't see a need to update the state's 2015 draft strategy.
'When you look at the models, Tennessee (is) about 5 percent of the problem,' said Forbes Walker, a professor and environmental soil specialist at the University of Tennessee. 'You guys (in Iowa) grow 13 or 14 million acres of corn. You still do the tillage thing. Mostly your landscape is tile drained so anytime you put fertilizer on soil, it comes out in the tile water. Compared with Iowa, we're really in good shape.'
Arkansas plans to update its 2014 nutrient reduction strategy in the next few years. The revision should include baseline numbers, said Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the state Natural Resources Commission.
Arkansas is the largest producer of rice in the United States, harvesting 1.1 million acres in 2017, according to the University of Arkansas Agricultural Research and Extension. Rice production requires extensive irrigation, with traditional methods calling for flooding rice paddies. Much of that water quickly drains into the groundwater supply, taking fertilizer with it.
But rice farmers are using new practices to reduce the amount of water used and participating in edge-of-field water monitoring to see what strategies might reduce nutrient runoff.
Mississippi talks a good game, with officials claiming the state is the 'leader in the development and implementation of nutrient reduction strategies' in its 2012 draft strategy.
But that document never has been adopted and there are no reports since on what state officials are doing to clean up the river that shares the state's name.
'At this time, MS (Mississippi) does not publish annual updates to the strategies,' Natalie Segrest, who works with basin management and nonpoint sources for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said in an email.
State officials meet once or twice a year to talk about progress within three geographic regions: delta, coastal and upland, Segrest said. The state has seven years of data from the delta region and now is beginning to analyze it, Segrest said.
Mississippi doesn't have baselines, but officials estimate conservation projects from 2007 to 2014 cut phosphorus by 217,873 pounds per year and nitrogen by 506,406 pounds per year.
The state has not computed a statewide baseline for nitrate and phosphorus, officials said, but the U.S. Geological Survey has at least six monitoring sites in Louisiana, including on the Mississippi River-Atchafalaya Delta, where the river pours into the Gulf. That monitoring site shows a 1980-1996 baseline of a little over 1 million tons of nitrate per year and about 150,000 tons of phosphorus per year.
The five-year average phosphorus load has been climbing since the baseline period, while the nitrate load has been pretty flat.
The Gulf Restoration Network, Sierra Club and other environmental groups have been pushing the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for years to step up protection of water bodies by putting them on an impaired waters list and accelerating improvement plans.
Matt Rota, senior policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, said Louisiana has progressed in requiring water monitoring by all large dischargers, but officials need to set discharge limits and establish numeric limits for nitrate and phosphorus.
EPA says it's ’pleased’
Environmental groups up and down the Mississippi River have been maddened by the slow pace of the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force and the state-led efforts to reduce nitrate and phosphorus.
The Mississippi River Collaborative in 2012 sued the EPA in federal court, alleging the agency was letting states get away with doing nothing.
The groups want the EPA to put the entire basin on a pollution diet that sets limits for pollutants and requires dischargers, both industrial and agricultural, to reduce the flow.
The EPA had used this regulatory approach on the East Coast's Chesapeake Bay in 2010.
'The Chesapeake bay is being cleaned up,' said Stoner, the former EPA official now president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. 'It's not a perfect process, but it's a very successful process for making nutrient reduction. The same thing could be done in the Mississippi River.'
Short of putting the Mississippi River basin or the Gulf on a pollution diet, the EPA could step up enforcement of discharger permits or force states to set numeric limits for lakes and rivers.
Regulating the Mississippi River watershed, which drains 40 percent of the continental United States, would be a much bigger challenge than the Chesapeake Bay. Such a project would be 'unprecedented and complex' as well as 'highly resource and time intensive,' argued President Barack Obama's EPA in a 2011 response to environmental groups.
The EPA under President Donald Trump has been even more disinterested, leaving two of seven federal seats on the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force vacant.
'Looking at the full suite of data available, EPA is pleased with the progress being made by the Hypoxia Task Force,' an agency spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday after declining a Nov. 12 Gazette request for an interview. When asked what the EPA could do to make sure the states reach nutrient reduction goals, she said:
'We are facilitating dialogues with states across the country to determine the feasibility of approaches to reducing excess nutrients that complement existing regulatory programs, such as using market-based mechanisms.'
Environmental groups initially won their case in U.S. District Court, but an appeals court sent it back down, where Judge Jay Zainey in the Eastern District of Louisiana sided with the EPA Dec. 15, 2016.
'Presumably, there is a point in time at which the agency will have abused its great discretion by refusing to concede that the current approach — albeit the one of first choice under the (Clean Water Act) — is simply not going to work,' he wrote. 'But for now, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that EPA's assessment was arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law.'
Sigford, the retired Minnesota environmental group leader, fears it will take a public health emergency like the lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., or an economic blow like the tourism-killing algal blooms in Florida, for Midwest officials to push for changes.
'To me, I think you need terrible local problems to get action,' she said. 'The outstanding question at this point is: How long do we have to wait?'
Erin Jordan of The Gazette is researching and reporting on the progress — or lack of progress — in reducing the flow of nitrate and phosphorus into the Mississippi River and other lakes and rivers during a nine-month O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.
Over four months, Jordan worked with Marquette students Meaghan Kaupe, Mark Lisowski and John Steppe to travel to both ends of the Mississippi River, review more than 1,000 pages of state nutrient reduction strategies and interview dozens of officials in the 12 states that have committed to trying to reduce nutrients.
Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.
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