EPA Makes the Right Call on Addressing Nutrient Discharges from Clean Water Agencies

Consistent with NACWA’s recommendations, on December 14, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a strongly worded denial of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) 2007 petition that sought to modify the secondary treatment regulations to include nutrient removal. NRDC wanted one-size-fits-all limits for nitrogen and phosphorus for all 15,000+ public wastewater utilities across the country.  Although this would no doubt have resulted in a reduction in the amount of nutrients entering the Nation’s waterways, it would have done so in a way that would needlessly waste resources and would disregard the principle of equity. Nutrient-related water quality effects vary greatly across the Nation, including among waterbody types, geographic regions, and relative source contributions. The solutions to these effects must be similarly site-specific. In denying the petition, EPA cited technical constraints and unacceptable costs associated with uniform national limits, but ultimately reaffirmed the importance of controlling nutrient discharges using more site-specifc, water quality-based approaches. 

This decision is a significant victory for the clean water community. It will save public wastewater utilties tens of billions of dollars annually, even based on EPA’s conservative, “lower end” cost estimates. The costs to small utilities would be significantly higher per pound of nutrient removed than at larger facilities. In fact, EPA estimated that the annual cost to incorporate advanced nutrient removal as proposed by NRDC—just for the 33% of plants with a flow of at least 0.5 million gallons per day—would be between $5 billion and $12 billion annually. Nationally, EPA estimated a capital investment of $45 billion for retrofits and $130 billion for technology replacement. But more important than cost, as EPA noted, is the fact that “not all POTWs nationwide need to meet minimum technology-based limits for nutrients to protect water quality” and that the investments contemplated by NRDC would impose “unnecessary costs” on communities that are already “confronting difficult financial conditions”. 

While NACWA applauds the avoided unnecessary costs that a uniform technology standard would have imposed, this decision means that the clean water community and all stakeholders must redouble their efforts to ensure that the water-quality based Clean Water Act (CWA) programs can continue to make progress on reducing nutrient-related effects. NACWA has led advocacy efforts on this issue since 2007 and encouraged the Agency to arrive at the conclusions set out in the December 14 denial. NACWA also has been leading efforts to better address all sources of nutrient pollution in a more holistic and equitable way, including addressing agricultural contributions. Although it is tempting to focus efforts to improve water quality on regulated public entities, public wastewater utilties—the low-hanging fruit—such an approach will only waste resources and ultimately will fail. NACWA continues to work toward more balanced solutions and welcomes the participation of NRDC and similar groups in advancing water quality improvements based on a holistic approach. 

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3 Responses to EPA Makes the Right Call on Addressing Nutrient Discharges from Clean Water Agencies

  1. Mark Wyzalek says:

    Great decision for the environment and our communities. Protecting and improving water quality is expensive and adding needlessly to those costs hinders us from doing just that.
    Curious as to what this will mean for state agencies with permitting authority, and the POTWS under their jurisdiction, that have nutrient limits proposed/set at a certain value not directly correlated to a water quality criteria.   

    • Mark – good thought, but this will have no legal impact on state programs.  Several states, including a recently proposed program in Iowa, are putting a lot of emphasis on reasonable technology-based limits rather than water-quality based approaches. In Iowa's case such an approach may actually be very beneficial to the POTW community. 

      • Mark Wyzalek says:

        Gotcha ya on the lack of legal impact for states that have official programs/strategies in place that may be very beneficial to the POTW community (and created in partnership with them).  

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