Up and Down at the MDEQ Nutrient Criteria Meeting

 

IMG 0940The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality hosted a meeting on March 19th to update interested people on the process of developing and setting nutrient criteria for Mississippi. At some point in the next 2 to 3 years, after many delays, the MDEQ will finally release state-wide standards for nitrogen and phosphorous pollution limits either in the form of single numerical concentration amounts, or as concentration ranges in combination with other water quality indicators. When they do, industries and city utility departments will have to meet these standards. Already the cities and industrial discharge permit holders are groaning and sending signals to the MDEQ that they are worried about how the standards will be implemented. The MDEQ has responded by doing some hand-holding as it slows down on the work to develop the standards and has conversations with permit holders about implementation. Without even knowing what the standards will be, the MDEQ is nevertheless working to calm the permit holder’s fears. This makes little sense, but regulatory "jitters" are contagious and unpredictable.

Other things covered at this meeting included a new study of options for modifying the designated uses placed on waterbodies (see photo). Designated uses for waterbodies are a part of a state's water quality standards. They are human uses and ecological conditions that are recognized and protected in state water quality standards. The study was presented by Tetra Tech, an engineering consulting company. Mississippi’s current designated use list is short, with 4 or 5 uses depending on sub- grouping. Other states subdivide into many specially tailored uses, but Mississippi keeps it simple. The "Aquatic Life" use-classification is the most basic and least protective. It simply means that a waterbody must be healthy (unpolluted) enough to support the propagation of the organisms living in it.

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Fish, mussels and aquatic insects can live and reproduce in waters that are fairly unhealthy for humans, so this classification is deceptive and isn’t as protective as, for example, "Public Water Supply", which is a use-classification meant to protect drinking water. The Pearl River within the Ross Barnett Reservoir, and the East Fork of the Tombigbee River both have the "Public Water Supply" use classification. Jackson drinks the water from the Pearl River and Tupelo treats the Tombigbee for use as drinking water. "Recreation" is a use-classification that protects swimmers and boaters. "Shellfish Harvest" is a use-classification meant to support commercial shellfish production (oysters). All waters in Mississippi now have to be at least healtlhy enough to support the "Aquatic Life" use designation - it is a "floor" designation. This could change in the future.

At the meeting it was revealed that the state is studying 2 new use-classification ranks that would offer even lower water quality protection than the "Aquatic Life" classification. They are "Modified Aquatic Life Designated Use" and "Agricultural Drainage Waters". To downgrade a use-class, MDEQ must do a Use Attainability Analysis (UAA), a report required by the Environmental Protection Agency. A UAA that justifies a downgrade is basically an obituary for a stream or river. A stream once classified for "Aquatic Life" could be downgraded to the "Agricultural Drainage" use and be basically written-off as a drainage ditch. In the midst of all this, there was a bit of good news: among these use classification changes, Mississippi is considering one upgrade: the "Exceptional Aquatic Life Designated Use". This classification could conceivably help protect healthy streams.

One retired MDEQ employee in the audience, now a consultant, applauded what he termed as the agency finally "facing reality." He said that downgrading stream use-classifications was something he tried to do in his years at MDEQ but the local regional office of EPA in Atlanta prevented it. There were approving nods given by city sewer plant managers, and industrial permit holders around the room. The EPA is appanrently not resisting new plans to downgrade stream uses. Something changed. The study to modify use-classifications is funded by EPA and isn’t final yet. When the study comes out, it will have a public comment period before it goes to the MDEQ Commission for ratification. Seeing a state agency present plans to "lower the bar" to make it easier to meet water quality standards and invent new classifications that accomodate degraded stream health didn't inspire confidence, but it does give Gulf Restoration Network more water policy issues to work on. Industry and cities are well represented at these meetings but there aren't many representatives of the people who use these waters for recreation or take their children to swim or fish in them. These people are also MDEQ’s "clients" - just as much as the city sewer plant managers and industrial discharge permit holders. MDEQ needs to be reminded of this fact. 

Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Water Policy Director and covers Mississippi issues.

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