In March, environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed suit in New Orleans to require EPA to reduce nutrient runoff – nitrogen and phosphorous in particular - from farms and cities in the Mississippi River Basin (MRB).

The litigants say that nutrients in the Mississippi River cause toxic algae blooms and the hypoxic zone that occurs every summer in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Mississippi, the majority of the nitrogen and phosphorous loads comes from farms while urban runoff accounts for roughly 10 percent of the load, according to data from the US Geological Survey. Approximately 60 percent of the fertilizer used in the United States is in the MRB. It is the world's fourth largest watershed and covers more than 1,245,000 square miles including all or parts of 32 US states and two Canadian provinces.

EPA has set a goal of reducing nutrients in the Mississippi by 40 percent by working with farmers and state governments. Environmentalists claim that those efforts have failed to seriously reduce the nutrient load in the river. The suit would expand the agency's authority over nutrients under the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the agency from regulating non-point source pollution that includes most agricultural operations.  EPA is saying it favors continuing the current system of working collaboratively with states because it would be too time consuming and costly to undertake such an unprecedented and complex set of rulemakings.

EPA imposed standards in Florida after settling a lawsuit that similarly sought the establishment of numeric criteria for Florida waters. These criteria rules for Florida freshwater systems are estimated to carry a Florida-wide implementation price tag of $298 million to $4.7 billion per year. Another study calculated that Florida sewer utility bills would have to increase $570 to $990 per year to fund the substantial capital projects required to achieve EPA’s nutrient water quality criteria. 

In order to inform affected parties of the implications this suit could have on the future of agriculture in the MRB, the National Agricultural Law Center, part of the U. of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, is hosting a free hour-long webinar on July 24, beginning at 11 am CDT. To learn more about this webinar, go to www.nationalaglawcenter.org/outreach/CWAEPA/.