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To protect water, University of Missouri professors recommend tighter regulation of runoff

By: - December 30, 2021 6:00 am

An article by professors at the University of Missouri recommends more regulation of agricultural and urban runoff to protect water quality. (Getty Images).

More than 190 segments of Missouri rivers, streams and lakes are impaired because of pollution from crop fertilizer, livestock waste and urban runoff.

And without action, two University of Missouri professors say, more drinking water utilities might have to spend considerable sums to keep their water supplies healthy, raising rates for customers. 

The professors — Robin Rotman and Kathleen Trauth — suggest amending the Clean Water Act, which turns 50 next year, to tighten regulations on “nonpoint source” pollution, contamination that enters waterways indirectly instead of being poured in from a single location. 

Rotman and Trauth wrote in Ecology Law Quarterly in September recommending three changes to the federal environmental act. The law, they said, has been successful in cleaning up contamination caused by industrial sites, wastewater treatment facilities and other “point source” causes of pollution but has little power in addressing nonpoint source pollution. 

“As a result, nonpoint source pollution is the leading cause of water quality problems in the United States today.” 

Nonpoint sources contribute large amounts of E. coli, phosphorus, chlorophyll and other pollutants to Missouri waterways. More than 36% of streams, lakes and rivers listed as impaired in Missouri are because of nonpoint source pollution. 

Rotman and Trauth recommended the Clean Water Act be amended to require that states enact controls on nonpoint source pollution, a revision they say would likely be opposed by powerful lobbying interests on the behalf of farmers, ranchers and property developers. 

They wrote that it’s more politically popular to offer voluntary programs, such as cost-share arrangements to encourage farmers to plant vegetation that keeps fertilizer runoff from reaching streams. 

“While these programs have significantly improved water quality in some areas, the fact remains that the majority of waterbodies in the United States are still impaired,” they wrote. “Voluntary measures to reduce nonpoint source pollution have only gotten us so far.”

The researchers also suggest amending the Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate pollutants that might inhibit drinking water ability. They say the law already does this for industrial sources of pollution, but not agriculture. 

The paper points to Des Moines where the water utility sued drainage districts upstream over high levels of nitrates that were entering the drinking water supply, forcing the utility to install a costly form of water treatment to remove the pollutants.  

“If that raw water is of a lower quality, then the treatment costs are going to be higher,” Rotman said in an interview, adding that it could result in an increase on customers’ bills. 

“Requiring drinking water utilities to install advanced treatment technologies is problematic in causing additional expense to drinking water customers who were not responsible for the pollutant discharges,” the paper says. 

Trauth said the Clean Water Act made significant progress.

“But there are still areas where there is a bit of a disconnect and where we kind of have to close the loop,” she said.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.