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Water: Water Quality Standards

EPA Response to Sierra Club Petition Regarding Defined Portions of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

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Fact Sheet; June 2004

What is the Sierra Club Petition?

On February 26, 2003, the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club submitted a petition requesting that EPA set consistent and adequate water quality standards for defined portions of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The Sierra Club submitted this petition pursuant to the settlement agreement in American Canoe Ass'n v. Browner. The petition area includes waters within the jurisdiction of Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Specifically, the petition area covers:

  • Mississippi River from Burlington, Iowa, to Memphis, Tennessee, and
  • Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, to St. Louis, Missouri.

The Sierra Club asserts that there are inconsistencies among the state water quality standards in the petition area. Specifically, the Sierra Club asserts that designated uses, criteria to protect the same designated uses, and impaired waters listings are inconsistent. The petitioner also expressed a concern that states have not adopted water quality criteria into water quality standards for all the necessary pollutants to adequately protect the rivers in the petition area.

According to the settlement agreement, EPA was required to provide a response within one year of receipt of the petition, however EPA and the Sierra Club agreed to extend the deadline to June 25, 2004.

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What is the Sierra Club petitioning EPA to do?

The petitioner asks EPA to promulgate water quality standards for the petition area that are both adequate to achieve and maintain the "fishable/swimmable" requirements of the Clean Water Act and consistent among the states such that no state impairs downstream or across stream water quality standards. The petitioner further requests that EPA promulgate water quality standards that include numeric criteria for:

  • chlordane,
  • atrazine,
  • polychlorinated biphenyls,
  • E. coli and enterococci,
  • conventionals (including dissolved oxygen, and ammonia),
  • nutrients,
  • sediments, and
  • an index of biological integrity for the aquatic community, among other pollutants.

Finally, the petitioner requests that EPA promulgate water quality standards that include monitoring requirements sufficient to support a uniform and statistically based method to determine if waters are attaining their water quality standards.

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What is EPA's response?

While EPA agrees with the Sierra Club that the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are valuable resources that must be protected, the Agency is denying their request. This decision is based on EPA's careful evaluation of the current water quality standards, existing scientific knowledge for each pollutant at issue, and whether the affected states are in the process of revising water quality standards in a manner that would address potential concerns.

With regard to designated uses, EPA found that, with the exception of Missouri, all states have designated uses consistent with the Clean Water Act and the federal regulations. Missouri has provided a letter committing to adopt appropriate recreation uses for the petition area by July 2005.

In EPA's evaluation of numeric criteria for the specified pollutants, EPA's findings fell into one of three categories: (1) States have adopted water quality standards consistent with the Clean Water Act and federal regulations; (2) The states have proposed revisions to their water quality standards or committed to revise their water quality standards in a manner that would address any potential concerns; or (3) EPA is currently evaluating the science surrounding the pollutant at issue and its effect in the petition area. For findings in the latter category, it is not appropriate for EPA to develop a numeric criterion or to require the states to develop a numeric criterion in the petition area for the pollutant until such science is better understood.

As mentioned earlier, the petitioner also requested that EPA promulgate monitoring requirements within water quality standards. EPA agrees that addressing shortcomings in state monitoring programs is a priority, however, there are non-regulatory approaches (e.g. The Great Waters Initiative) planned and currently underway that will achieve the outcome of strengthened and more consistent monitoring and assessment programs in the petition states.

In our discussions with the Sierra Club, they specified that two of their highest priority issues are numeric criteria for nutrients and bacteria. Specifically, in response to the petitioner's request to promulgate numeric nutrient criteria for the petition area, EPA believes it is important to fully understand the cause and responses of nutrients in the petition area prior to adopting numeric criteria for the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. However, we also understand that addressing nutrients in these waters is important to the health of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. As part of our efforts to better understand the science surrounding nutrient criteria in large rivers, EPA is committing to convene key partners at a multi-day national workshop. Discussions will focus on developing and adopting appropriate ambient water quality criteria for nutrients for the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers that will protect the rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. We intend to invite experts from federal agencies (e.g., U.S. EPA's Office of Water and Office of Research and Development, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Department of Agriculture), states and other stakeholders. The workshop's objectives will be to:

  • identify the existing federal and state nutrients efforts and objectives along the Mississippi River, the Missouri River and the Gulf of Mexico;
  • understand the current state of the science and the barriers states are facing;
  • determine additional research needs and priorities; and
  • discuss how federal and state agencies and stakeholders can work together to develop quantitative nutrient criteria for the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

EPA will publish a report which summarizes the workshop discussions and identifies next steps. This report will establish a roadmap for how EPA intends to work with its partners to address nutrients in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The workshop will be closely linked with The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Federal, State, and Tribal Task Force efforts to ensure that all related nutrient work is effectively coordinated. At present, we intend to hold the workshop in 2005. EPA hopes that the Sierra Club and other stakeholders will actively participate in this effort to help ensure success.

With regard to bacteria, both Illinois and Missouri sent EPA formal letters committing to adopt E. coli criteria for the petition area (among other waters) within their states. Missouri has committed to adopt E.coli criteria by July of 2005 and Illinois has committed to initiate its rulemaking process by September 30, 2004. The remaining six states have either adopted E. coli criteria or have proposed E. coli criteria in their state rulemaking process and are moving forward to adopt it into state regulation. If any state does not follow through on its commitment, EPA will, if necessary, promulgate water quality standards for the petition area within these states.

The Agency expects states to protect their waters consistent with the requirements of the Clean Water Act and the federal regulations. While EPA is not promulgating water quality standards for the petition area in response to the petition at this time, EPA is committed to continue to work with the states to ensure these valuable waters are adequately protected.

How can I get more information?

If you have questions about the petition or EPA's response, please call Manjali Vlcan at 202-566-0373 or send an e-mail to vlcan.manjali@epa.gov.

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