Why does the League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County (LWV-JDC) care about an issue like “nutrient loss” and why is it encouraging civic engagement to deal with it?
One of the LWV-supported principles of government is that government should promote the conservation and development of natural resources in the public interest. The LWV strongly supported the Clean Water Act (CWA) and its amendments in 1972 that established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into US surface waters. The CWA set wastewater standards for industry, helped fund sewage disposal plants, and made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source (a specific identifiable source such as a discharge pipe from a sewage disposal plant or factory) into navigable waters unless a permit was obtained under its provisions.
The CWA also recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution, the combination of pollutants from large areas rather than from specific identifiable sources.
Excess phosphorus and nitrogen/nitrates are examples that affect the quality of our drinking water and contribute to an unprecedented environmental challenge: dead zones in water bodies around the world.
But aren’t nitrogen and phosphorus naturally occurring elements? Why are they considered pollutants? Briefly, here’s why:
Commercial fertilizers and animal waste (including human waste) contain a chemical called nitrate, a form of nitrogen which, when not managed well, can run off into our surface waters or seep into our ground water. One of the first problems observed in the 1950s with excess nitrate (water levels greater than 10 mg per liter) was blue baby syndrome, a condition that can result in death for infants. Nitrate drinking water standards were set to prevent higher levels. Recent studies by the National Cancer Institute have found that drinking water with levels below that standard for nitrate increases the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers.
Although nitrogen and phosphorus are essential nutrients for aquatic life, the excessive amounts of both in our lakes and rivers are causing unprecedented algae growth. Some of the algae can be toxic to humans and pets. For 56 hours in August 2014, nearly a half million people living along the shores of Lake Erie couldn’t drink or bathe in the water out of their taps when an algae bloom of cyanobacteria had poisoned the source of drinking water for Toledo, Ohio.
After an algae bloom, the algae cells die and decompose resulting in low dissolved oxygen and the suffocation of marine life creating a “Dead Zone.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2019’s Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone was approximately 6,952 square miles.
Illinois is among the states required to create nutrient reduction plans to address the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico since Illinois and Iowa are the top total nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorous) contributors. Our LWV has been spearheading local and regional efforts to make a meaningful contribution to Illinois’ plan. In 2015, our Local League helped initiate the formation of the Upper Mississippi River Region Inter-League Organization (UMRR ILO): 60 local chapters working in their communities and together to reduce nutrient loss to the Mississippi River (lwvumrr.org).
LWV-JDC members Bonnie Cox and Beth Baranski are contributing a series of columns to the Galena Gazette. Cox’s columns are about what the LWV does, how it works and why. Baranski’s columns feature the water resource management work spearheaded by the local chapter of the LWV since 2013 to increase our understanding of the local challenges to our water resources.