Nutrient Criteria

In aquatic ecosystems, there can be too much of a good thing. Water bodies need nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, but over-enrichment creates problems.

When human activities are to blame, nutrient overload is called cultural eutrophication. A classic example occurs when phosphorus from human, farm animal, and industrial wastes finds its way into lakes and rivers, spurring rapid growth in algae. The resulting algal bloom chokes off the oxygen supply for other plants and wreaks havoc on an ecosystem.

Most states have established narrative criteria for acceptable levels of nutrients. New Hampshire, for example, includes this statement in its regulations: “(Lakes and ponds) shall contain no phosphorus in such concentrations that would impair any usage assigned to the specific class involved, unless naturally occurring.”  However, since 1998, EPA has been encouraging states to develop and establish numeric nutrient criteria for their waters. Given that nutrients behave quite differently from many other pollutants, this is no small task.

Autumn on the river

All of the Northeast states have put significant effort and resources into the process of developing numeric nutrient criteria. NEIWPCC is doing all it can to assist the states in this process. Since 1998, NEIWPCC has coordinated meetings and organized workshops for the states and EPA. Workshops provide an outlet to discuss technical approaches for criteria development and policy issues related to establishing criteria.

Recently, NEIWPCC has been working with states on projects relating to data sharing and finding a uniform method for sampling and analyses relating to nutrients.

NEIWPCC has also been an active participant in this issue nationally. In January 2011, NEIWPCC sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to express our member states’ concerns regarding EPA’s direction on numeric nutrient criteria. The letter explains that while the Northeast states are committed to addressing nutrient pollution, most states favor a technical approach that relies on environmental response variables. The letter also states that numeric nutrient criteria should not be required to be independently applicable

In June 2011, NEIWPCC’s then-Director of Water Quality Programs, Beth Card, testified at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on nutrients. In her testimony, Card urged the EPA to allow states greater flexibility in developing and implementing numeric nutrient criteria.

Nutrient criteria are just one piece of the overall issue of nutrient pollution. NEIWPCC is involved in many other initiatives related to nutrients, including efforts to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, the Long Island Sound Total Maximum Daily Load, a regional effort to reduce nutrient pollution from turf fertilizer, and assisting wastewater treatment plants in meeting nutrient reductions.

For more information, contact Emma Gildesgame, coordinator of our nutrient criteria workgroup.