SWC Learning Exchange: Why Everyone Should Care About Nutrient Pollution

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Co-Authored by SWC Members: Jim Taft (ASDWA), Lynn Thorp (Clean Water Action) and Karen Wirth (EPA’s Source Water Protection Team)

This month, the Source Water Collaborative’s Learning Exchange will feature efforts to reduce nutrient pollution in sources of drinking water. An over enrichment of water and air by nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrient pollution has emerged as one of the most widespread, costly, and challenging threats to water quality. Algal blooms and hypoxia, the primary symptoms of nutrient pollution, have understandably garnered considerable attention over the past several years: the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, fed by nutrient and sediment runoff from farms and towns in the Mississippi River watershed, has significantly affected the economic opportunities of Gulf communities that rely on its productivity. This past summer, four counties in southeastern FL declared in “state of emergency” due to widespread algal blooms and sections of Utah Lake were closed to recreation due to snaking plumes of harmful algal blooms. These are just a few examples of the impacts of nutrient pollution.

So why should drinking water professionals and advocates in particular care about nutrient pollution?

Here are three glaring reasons:

1. Nutrient pollution is a direct risk to public health and is a threat to drinking water safety

Nitrogen and phosphorous are natural components of aquatic ecosystems, but significant increases in source water, whether from human or natural sources, can produce a range of public health risks. High levels of nitrates in finished drinking water can cause Methemoglobinemia in children, commonly known as Blue Baby Syndrome. Certain species of blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) blooms produce toxic compounds (cyanotoxins) that, if ingested, can cause serious health problems, ranging from a mild skin rash to liver or kidney damage. In summer 2014, harmful algal blooms in western Lake Erie forced Toledo, Ohio to shut its water intakes and issue a “do not drink order” to over 400,000 residents. Among the range of challenges posed to water treatment processes, algal blooms can also increase formation of harmful disinfection byproducts (DBPs). A September 2016 memorandum from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water Joel Beauvais to state agency heads called for renewed efforts to reduce nutrient pollution and highlighted public health impacts: Renewed Call to Action to Reduce Nutrient Pollution and Support for Incremental Actions to Protect Water Quality and Public Health

2. Nutrient pollution burdens public water systems and their customers

Addressing the public health threats from nutrients and algal blooms in source water places a technological and cost burden on public water systems and their consumers. This can include additional costs for facilities and equipment, treatment chemicals, monitoring and detection, and devotion of staff time that could be going to other efforts. For example, Des Moines Water Works in Iowa recently invested over $4 million in a nitrate removal facility that requires an additional $7,000 a day to operate.

3. Nutrient pollution can (and should) be controlled at the source

While cost is a major factor in the management and control of nutrient pollution, information suggests that preventing nutrients from entering the system is potentially a more cost-effective strategy for addressing nutrient pollution and its impacts. Nutrient pollution is currently not controlled at sources across the country (either point or nonpoint sources) to the fullest extent possible and source water protection advocates can help by increasing awareness, seeking partnerships, and identifying funding streams. Government at every level as well as those responsible for nutrient pollution all have a role to play in reducing this burden on drinking water sources.

Please visit the Learning Exchange for featured resources and success stories from communities across the country working together to eliminate nutrient pollution in their sources of drinking water. Given the far-reaching impacts of nutrient pollution on public health and water quality, it is critical that we in the source water protection community address this challenge. The Source Water Collaborative has a network of resources that can help foster public engagement, sustain collaboration, and expand meaningful partnerships to help us meet this challenge.

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