Bear of a Conundrum

My last post introduced the Nutrient Criteria Development Plan (NCDP), a plan for addressing the State’s approach to better managing nutrient pollution. In short, current State policy actions are triggered by the symptoms of nutrient pollution, not by the causes. In practice, this typically means that state actions to control nutrient pollution get triggered when monitoring of chlorophyll a reaches 40 ug/L. Currently the State has few tools for addressing excess nutrients – the source of the eutrophication problem.

Bear Creek in the Neuse River Basin illustrates this problem well. Located in Wayne, Lenoir, and Greene counties, this Creek has no nutrient specific impairments yet contributes a highly disproportional amount of nutrient pollution that leads to fish kills and other impairments downstream in the Neuse River Estuary.

The US Geological Survey has studied the Creek for several decades. Tim Spruill, a former USGS scientist, helped author a summary of some of the findings from those studies and used those results in his comments on the NCDP. Of Bear Creek, Spruill writes:

“most, if not all, nutrient pollution is nonpoint and agriculturally derived. Although Bear Creek drains only 1 % of the Neuse Basin at Fort Barnwell, NC, it is the source for 6 % of the entire annual nitrogen load of the Neuse at Fort Barnwell and yet it was not identified by NC DWQ as an impaired stream for nutrients. Why? Because there were no biological visual cues (i.e. visible algal growths) that the stream was impaired and no violation of the 40 ug/L chlorophyll a standard used by North Carolina.”

Nutrient pollution from Bear Creek and other creeks like it will continue to negatively affect the State’s water bodies unless the State is committed to dealing with the cause of these problems. As Spruill concludes in his letter,

“If, instead, NCDENR continues environmental policies and strategies based on what special interests and politicians judge to be appropriate in order to save money and allow continued pollution of the State’s water resources, while ignoring scientists and scientific evidence that excess nutrients are a problem and could cost more to the State in the long term in terms of increased pollution that will be more difficult to remove in the future along with the resulting lost fisheries, tourism, and quality of life for the State’s residents than the short-term “savings” (that are not), then it is time for EPA to do their job and implement and enforce nutrient standards to uphold requirements of the Clean Water Act.”

Bear Creek

This last measure would be dramatic and avoided if the state can demonstrate that it’s committed to curbing nutrient pollution. An EPA takeover is unlikely to happen but should help focus NC DENR on implementing the recently approved NCDP.


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