From: Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent, Reuters
Published October 16, 2007 07:15 PM

Government urged to clean Mississippi River

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Mississippi River, storied in American culture and commerce, needs more federal government action if it is once again to be clean enough for fishing and swimming, scientists said on Tuesday.

In a report issued by the National Research Council, the scientists called on the Environmental Protection Agency to take a more aggressive role in enforcing the Clean Water Act, which aims to make U.S. waters "fishable and swimmable."

Parts of the Mississippi, which flows 2,300 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, are neither.

"The limited attention being given to monitoring and managing the Mississippi's water quality does not match the river's significant economic, ecological and cultural importance," said David Dzombak of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Dzombak, who headed the scientific panel that wrote the report, urged the EPA to work with the 10 states that line the river as it has with those along the Chesapeake Bay, where decades of work have cut pollution and improved water quality.

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On the Mississippi, one key problem is pollution from so-called nonpoint sources such as chemical runoff from farms, as opposed to direct discharges from sewage treatment plants and factories, the report said.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous enter the river from fertilizer runoff, creating significant pollution in the river itself and contribute to an oxygen-deficient "dead zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the scientists found.

Sediments are also a problem that affect different parts of the river differently. In the upper Mississippi, they are too plentiful and a pollutant, but near the river's mouth, sediments are scarce and their absence contributes to a loss of coastal wetlands in southern Louisiana.

To cut this kind of pollution, the panel said, the EPA should "exert the federal leadership that the Clean Water Act allows" and work with states to develop clean water standards.

The EPA's Benjamin Grumbles, the assistant administrator for water, said in a statement the agency was "committed to increasing efforts with all of our partners to improve the water quality and monitoring of the Mississippi River Basin."

Grumbles said an agency task force aimed to protect public health and restore the waters of the 31 states and tribal lands within the Mississippi River Basin.

The Sierra Club's Ed Hopkins said the report points out the obstacles to achieving a truly clean Mississippi.

"Lax enforcement and unclear administrative guidance have limited the success of the Clean Water Act, preventing it from achieving its twin goals of making all of our waters fishable and swimmable, and eliminating pollution," he said.

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