The Iowa Environmental Council is one of a series of environmental organizations that have joined together in a lawsuit against the EPA.

The agency announced eight years ago that nitrogen and phosphorous were the primary agents in the creation of the dead zone. The environmental organizations argue that the EPA has failed to enforce regulations to reduce those contaminants, resulting in the failure of states to develop effective water quality policies.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has the authority to establish numeric water quality standards, the plaintiffs argue in their petition. This numeric standard is similar to the drinking water standard that limits nitrogen in drinking water to 10 milligrams per liter. However, the standards the environmental organizations want to see would apply to the amount of nitrogen in a lake or a stream.

“The limits are on water outside, not coming through the tap,” said Matt Hauge, the communications and outreach director at the Iowa Environmental Council.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources had initiated a process to set numeric limits for lakes, but it let that expire, Hauge said. There was also a process in place for a standard for rivers and stream, but that was deferred too.

“In Iowa, what we have seen is that [nutrient issues] have kind of slid off our radar,” Hauge said. He added that he hoped the lawsuit would push the EPA to move the creation of standards up on their list of priorities.

Hauge emphasized the importance of a central, well-researched goal for nutrient reduction. He also stressed the importance of time

“These standards are coming,” he said. “The question is how long we have to wait and how good they will be when they get here.”

The lawsuit will most likely take a long time, Hauge noted.

“We filed the petition in 2008. It took the EPA three years to respond,” he said.

However, he said he hoped the lawsuit would speed up the process of creating more universal standards.

“It would be nice if Iowa would go and set standards created by Iowans,” Hauge said. But that hasn’t happened.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, crops account for 66 percent of nitrogen pollution and many farmers are concerned that they will be forced to bear the burden of nutrient regulations.

Agriculture will need to be a big contributor to the effort to clean up the waterways, and has already begun working towards nutrient reduction through improved farming techniques and projects such as the creation of wetlands. Hauge said the effort will be easier if regulators have a solid numeric standard to work towards.

“It is like a moving goal post,” Hauge said. “You think this is what the state want, but then it’s not enough. If we can be specific with farmers about what the problems are and what farmers need to do, that’s a better way to go.”

During the past few years, both the Cedar and Iowa rivers were voted as some of America’s most endangered rivers by the American Rivers organization. Iowa lakes are frequently overtaken by algae caused by excess nutrient content.

“In the water in Iowa, our levels of nitrogen are very high and we’ve gotten used to this idea,” Hauge said. “We might be surprised by just how far from normal our ecosystems are.”

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