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About the organizer
Dr. Cindy Skrukrud
Dr. Cindy Skrukrud
Illinois Chapter
200 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 505
Chicago, IL 60601-5908
(312) 251-1680
fax (312) 251-1780

Sierra Club EPEC Program

State lacks water-quality standards for nutrients

Water Sentinels press conferenceWater-quality monitoring efforts by the Illinois Chapter Water Sentinels have documented clear problems with high phosphorus levels in Illinois rivers. The chapter's data mirror that reported by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in the 2002 Illinois Water Quality Report where nutrients rank as the number one potential cause of impairment with 3,082 miles of streams in Illinois listed as impaired by nutrients.

Failure to adequately address this problem is occurring at both the state and national level, involving both nutrient standard development and in cleanup plans for rivers impaired by nutrients. First, Illinois has no water-quality standard for nutrients in streams, despite the documented problems. Recognizing this failure by Illinois and some other states, in 2000, U.S. EPA collected available scientific research and recommended a "reference condition" for total phosphorus and total nitrogen for each major region of the nation. This "reference condition" is intended to reflect nutrient concentrations in a healthy river or stream.

Illinois has formed a Nutrient Standards Development Committee but progress has been slow, and Illinois was not planning on meeting the original 2004 deadline set by USEPA for states to either adopt the reference condition as a state water-quality standard or else develop and justify a different proposal. Unfortunately, USEPA has now backed off its original requirement. They are just requiring states to file schedules soon for adopting standards, which now may extend to 2007.

Without an Illinois water-quality standard for nutrients in place, the Clean Water Act's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) rule - triggering the creation and implementation of a cleanup plan - is another avenue to address nutrients problems in Illinois rivers. However, Illinois has yet to complete its first TMDL and is entirely dependent on federal pass-through money to fund completion of cleanup plans for the 414 waterbodies on the draft 2002 list of impaired Illinois waters for which a TMDL is required. Unfortunately, preliminary reports from the US EPA indicate a revision to the TMDL rule will soon be released that will weaken the rule.

Proposed changes will:

  • weaken standards for classifying waterbodies and allow currently polluted waters to be defined as clean on paper;
  • permit states to rely upon speculative and unenforceable reductions from nonpoint sources as a basis for classifying waters as "likely to achieve" water quality standards, and therefore avoid doing a TMDL;
  • allow increased discharges from point sources based upon those same speculative, unenforceable future reductions from nonpoint sources; and
  • curtail EPA's oversight of the states' implementation of this vital program of the Clean Water Act.

    EPA Administrator Christine Whitman should focus on ensuring that the states properly implement the current TMDL program and that they demonstrate steady progress in the development of water-quality standards for nutrients.

    Photo: Members of the media watch as Dick Barthel collects a sample of Lake Michigan water. Photo by Jennifer Hensley. Photo by Cindy Skrukrud. Photo of Cindy Skrukrud by Tom von Geldern.

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