Nutrient pollution, which causes unhealthy levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes and rivers (as well as the dead zones in coastal areas), is one of the most widespread but least addressed water protection issues. While the federal Clean Water Act regulates point sources (wastewater treatment plants, industrial sources, etc.) for nutrient pollution, most of it comes from unregulated nonpoint sources, namely agricultural fertilizer runoff. This is a terrible problem for the health of our rivers and lakes. Nutrient pollution causes eutrophicationwhen excess nitrogen and phosphorus feed algal blooms, which then starve the waterbody of dissolved oxygen killing a wide range of aquatic life. According to EPA data, over 90% of the rivers in the continental US currently exceed nutrient water quality standards, putting these waterbodies at risk for eutrophication and resulting environmental impacts.
A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology puts the cost of nutrient pollution in dollars, and it’s huge. The study was led by Professor Walter Dodds of Kansas State University, a widely respected authority on freshwater ecology. It analyzes the economic impact of nutrient pollution and eutrophication across a range of sectors. The total cost exceeds $4 billion a year, and according to the study’s authors that’s being conservative. They measured the costs borne through drinking water treatment, waterfront real estate values, losses in recreational water usage, and spending on recovery of endangered species.
This means that citizens, property owners, drinking water providers, and public agencies are paying billions of dollars a year to clean up and treat someone else’s pollution of public waters. As a matter of environmental law and policy (as well as simple fairness), this is just plain wrong. It also seems to me that this is a form of unauthorized water takings and privatization, since farmers and other sources of nonpoint pollution are basically depriving the public of its ability to drink, fish, and swim in our waters without any regulation or legal authorization. It’s time to stop giving farmers and other sources of polluted runoff a free pass from the law and take regulatory action to protect our water from widespread nutrient pollution.