Too much of a good thing. Nitrogen and phosphorus are important nutrients for healthy aquatic systems, but cause problems in large doses.

Across NEIWPCC member states and around the world, treated wastewater, stormwater, livestock and pet waste, fertilizer runoff, and industrial waste carry excess nutrients into waterways. These excess nutrients fuel rapid algae growth. Algal blooms can block light for other plants, use up all available oxygen as they break down, and wreak havoc on an ecosystem. They can also be toxic for humans, pets, and wildlife. NEIWPCC’s harmful algal bloom workgroup focuses on finding solutions to this problem.

Most states have established narrative criteria to set acceptable levels of nutrients in their waters. 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 data sharing projects and finding uniform sampling and analysis methods for nutrients.

NEIWPCC has also been an active participant in this issue nationally. In January 2011, NEIWPCC sent a letter to then-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.