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Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Nutrient Pollution

On October 4th, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife held a hearing entitled, “Nutrient Pollution: An Overview of Nutrient Reduction Approaches.”  Congress is continuing to take an interest in the development of state numeric nutrient criteria.

During the hearing, Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Inhofe (R-OK) spoke about U.S. nutrient pollution problems as well as the associated hypoxic zones and harmful algal blooms.  Two witness panels provided testimony and answered questions.  The first panel focused on Federal agency efforts and initiatives, and the second panel focused on state and local activities.

Key discussion points during the Federal agency panel were as follows:

  • Bill Werkheiser, USGS, reported that tile drains accelerate nitrogen transport three times faster than normal runoff and that conservation practices affect groundwater and streams differently depending on geologic settings and soil permeability.  He also noted that nitrate concentrations in groundwater will increase over time from nitrate that is already in the ground, due to delayed times of travel to reach the aquifer.
  • Nancy Stoner, Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, noted that EPA has renewed its commitment to work with states to address nutrient pollution using a range of regulatory and non-regulatory tools and strategies.  The Agency will also work closely USDA and USGS to implement nutrient reduction efforts on the ground.  EPA will encourage states to use 319 and CWSRF programs to fund nutrient reduction projects, including implementing Chesapeake Bay TMDLs.
  • Dave White, Chief, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), provided information about the funding USDA is using to work with landowners to implement conservation and farm practices to protect water quality.  He noted that, although more work is needed, the problem would be far worse, were it not for the various projects NRCS has sponsored.
  • Additional Discussion centered on state flexibility to develop numeric or narrative nutrient standards as well as the associated costs and the complexity of site specific scientific analyses and criteria development.  This included questions about EPA taking over the development and implementation of Florida’s nutrient criteria.

Key discussion points from the second state and local panel included:

  • George Hawkins, General Manager, District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DCWater) highlighted the costly efforts that his utility has undertaken to reduce nutrient loads to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that are being paid for by increased rate hikes.  Of particular note was the fact that DCWater recently spent $900 million to decrease its nutrient load, which only accounts for two percent of the load to the entire Chesapeake Bay.  In contrast, Hawkins proposed that a nutrient trading program with farmers would offset the burden to DC ratepayers and more effectively decrease nutrient loads to the Bay from agricultural runoff and other sources.  Such an approach would provide credits to farmers that implement conservation and best practices in addition to the current $20 million available to farmers through the USDA conservation program
  • Shellie Chard-McClary, Director, Water Quality Division, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (and ASDWA and ACWA (formerly ASIWPCA) Member), testified on behalf of the ODEQ and ACWA.  She highlighted her state’s efforts to address and reduce nutrient pollution through the use of both narrative and numeric nutrient standards for different water bodies throughout the state.  She remarked that states need flexibility to use different approaches and strategies to address site-specific nutrient problems for different water bodies and segments of water bodies.  She noted that Oklahoma’s efforts to date are proving to be successful, but that much more work still needs to be done.
  • Additional Witnesses:  Andy Buchsbaum, Great Lakes National Wildlife Federation, provided recommendations for EPA and USDA to improve their programs; Nick Maravell, organic farm owner/operator in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, described his implementation of environmentally friendly practices; and Richard Budell, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service, strongly objected to Federal setting of Florida’s nutrient criteria and felt that this was a state prerogative.

To view the live recording of the webcast, and to read the testimony of each witness, visit the Senate EPW website