By Peter Chawaga
The issue of nutrient pollution is one with widespread implications but, to date, siloed solutions.
Nutrients find their way into water supplies through agricultural and industrial runoff, they are typically headaches for treatment plants to address, they create toxic algae that affects source water and wildlife, and sometimes they event pose health issues in drinking water. Through this cycle, excessive nutrients affect a wide range of agencies and groups. It’s time that all of those affected and all of those who play a part in the problem with nutrient contamination join together to do something about it.
“The problem has gotten to a scale that we have to step up our efforts,” said Radhika Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance, which recently released a report and held a webinar dedicated to finding a more holistic approach to nutrient issues. “We have to elevate the water conversation and nutrient pollution must be a key part of that.”
The U.S. Water Alliance, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that seeks to promote conversation about improving water quality and resources, has identified issues with the scattered way in which nutrient problems are typically addressed, with agricultural entities, treatment plants, and environmental groups working on their own without collaboration and communities around the country all contributing to dead zones in source water without banding together to stop.
“While some important progress has been made, it is clear that the piecemeal approach of trying to tackle this problem community by community isn’t sufficient,” Fox said. “Most progress made on this issue is due to productive upstream/downstream partnerships which themselves are success stories despite, not because of, the policy and political environment of the last several decades. A more holistic approach could make those partnerships more likely by bringing disparate groups to the table at a watershed level.”
To encourage the types of partnerships that the U.S. Water Alliance sees as effective, it hosted a webinar on “Addressing Nutrient Pollution in our Nation’s Water” earlier this month. It gathered high-level representatives from the utility, environmental, and agricultural fields to discuss how closer collaboration can be a solution to the growing nutrient pollution problem.
“The holistic approach means coming at decisions with a system mindset that encompasses watershed-scale thinking and action, rather than being governed by political boundaries drawn on a map,” said Fox. “It would mean partnerships for progress, recognizing that real progress will only be made when all stakeholders have a seat at the table.”
This approach has already been put into place in some communities and has been shown to be effective. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), for instance, has had great success in removing nutrients from wastewaters before discharging and part of that success has come from conversations between disparate states and the agricultural industry.
“[There was] a conversation between farmers and utility leaders across the 10 states in the Mississippi river basin… Everyone said nutrients need a big leap forward, the current paradigm isn’t working, and the Clean Water Act wasn’t equipped to solve this problem,” said David St. Pierre, executive director of MWRD. “Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa convened to try and solve this problem. We had very good multi-stakeholder viewpoints at the table, from NGOs to agriculture to industry to utility leaders.”
As always, utilities have a significant role to play in promoting a more holistic approach against nutrient pollution. They are, after all, the critical point of defense against excess phosphorus and nitrogen.
“While it may be easy to think about the role your utility plays in your city’s water management system, think about your utility’s role in the larger system of the watershed and its health,” Fox said. “Search for partnership opportunities to connect with the agricultural community and other agencies.”
Fox offered several case studies that can demonstrate the effectiveness of such an approach. In Wisconsin, she said, point source facilities can fund management measures at other sources in the watershed in order to meet their phosphorus limits. The community of Denver has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to reforest an area upstream to create a natural buffer for pollution. Boise, ID, created a 49-acre series of wetlands and sedimentation basins downstream from agricultural land.
Ultimately, the U.S. Water Alliance would like to see the emergence of what it calls “statewide environmental utilities.” These would focus on managing nutrient reduction holistically, awarding contracts to projects that address pollution in multi-sector ways.
“A statewide utility could supplement the existing finance, governance, and operational framework within a state to advance nutrient reduction strategies with the support of agriculture, water utilities, environmental and business interests, and the community at large,” Fox said. “In doing so, it would bring more cohesion and flexibility and could take advantage of a larger scope to invest in priority projects that provide the highest return on investment to the state.”
While the emergence of these intrastate bodies may still be some way off, communities and source water are dealing with the fallout from nutrient pollution today. It’s up to the individual organizations to take it upon themselves and collaborate toward solutions.