Farm Bureau seeks to intervene in water quality lawsuit

The Mississippi Farm Bureau joined in early May 13 of its fellow state organizations in filing a motion to intervene in litigation seeking to establish uniform nutrient water quality standards.

Gulf Restoration Network v. Jackson, et al is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to either adopt uniform nutrient water quality standards for all U.S. waters or to adopt similar measures for states in the Mississippi River Basin. The suit was filed in March in federal court in Louisiana.

The Clean Water Act allows states to choose whether to use narrative or numeric standards to determine water quality. Most states in the Mississippi River Basin employ the narrative method, which calls for “no nutrients at levels that cause a harmful imbalance of aquatic populations,” meaning water quality should be such that it doesn’t lead to the demise of one species or another.

What Gulf Restoration wants is for the EPA to force states – if not every state, at least those that border the Mississippi River – to adopt the numeric standards, which would set hard and fast limits on nutrients.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the 14 state organizations claim such a move would be bad for farmers. Numeric standards, they say, could impose limits on runoff to bodies of water that drain into the Mississippi River. In Mississippi, that’s nearly every body of water in the state.

Nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorous) are necessary for healthy water. Too much of either, though, can be harmful, even to the point of creating dead zones, areas where oxygen levels have gotten so low that marine life cannot survive. With many fertilizers containing nitrogen and various forms of phosphates, how to control runoff and how much to allow into waters that abut farmland has been an issue the EPA, environmental groups and agriculture interests have wrestled for decades.

“Setting appropriate numeric nutrient standards is a complex and difficult scientific undertaking and EPA has proven it is not up to the task,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said in a press release. “Farmers have no reason to believe that EPA could establish scientifically defensible standards for any one state, much less for 40 percent of the U.S. land mass.”

The purpose of Mississippi Farm Bureau’s proposed intervention is to clarify the limited circumstances within the Clean Water Act that allow the EPA to set water quality standards that override those already set in place by a state government. Stallman said the AFBF opposes a “top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”

In a report issued in August 2009, the U.S. Inspector General found that the EPA’s move toward state adoption of nutrient water quality standards, which started in 1998, had been ineffective. Eleven years after that initiative, the report said, half the states in the U.S. still relied on narrative standards, and not numeric standards. States had been reluctant to implement numeric standards, the report concluded, because they were costly and unpopular with groups like Farm Bureau.

“We’re still seeing deleterious effects of the algal blooms (which are caused by excess phosphorous), with these narrative standards in place,” said Matt Rota, Gulf Restoration Network’s science and water policy director.

What makes numeric standards better for water quality, Rota said, is that they provide a target. If there can only be a specific amount of nitrogen or phosphorous in a body of water, that makes it easier to enforce than a narrative standard.

“And if all the states would actually enforce their narrative standards, we wouldn’t be here,” Rota said.

Mississippi Farm Bureau president Randy Knight did not return messages left on his cell phone last week.

Joining Mississippi in filing the motion to intervene were Farm Bureaus in Arkansas; Illinois; Iowa; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Minnesota; Mississippi; Missouri; Nebraska; Oklahoma; South Dakota; Tennessee; and Wyoming.

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