Too polluted to swim, too polluted to fish, or even too polluted to support aquatic life. These are Missouri's 'impaired' waters, as well as the pollution outfalls that pour into them. Click on the map to download a high resolution version.
Every two years, each state is supposed to list all its streams and lakes that fail to meet water quality standards, along with the pollutants causing the impairments. The list (known as the “303(d) list” for the section of the Clean Water Act that requires it) is intended to spur states to develop and implement plans to address the impairments. Missouri’s last list, produced in 2002, included 207 waters. Its new proposed 2004/2006 list (the state having entirely missed the 2004 deadline) has only 82 waters. Good news, right? The state’s streams and lakes have gotten cleaner, yes? Well, no…
Actually, only 30 waters that were on the 2002 303(d) list now meet water quality standards. Another 135 waters from the 2002 list were not included on the new list despite there being no indication that their condition has improved in the last five years. A grand total of 42 of the 207 previously listed streams and lakes were retained on the 2004/2006 list, and only 40 others were added. These numbers reflect a clear intent by the state to greatly reduce the number of streams and lakes for which it would have to expend effort and resources to restore water quality.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) admits that is has not listed all of the state’s impaired waters and offers some interesting rationales for “delisting” the 135 waters on the 2002 list and for not including on the new list many others known to be impaired. Two of the rationales for delisting are technically adequate, if logically flawed: 1) waters can be removed when a plan for dealing with the relevant pollutants has been developed—even if the plan has not actually shown results—and 2) they can be removed when the pollutant limits have been deleted from the state water quality standards (although the pollutant is still present in the stream). MDNR’s other justifications for failing to list waters, however, have no technical or legal merit, and some are just plain bizarre.
MDNR states that “mercury contamination is widespread and present in fish throughout Missouri,” noting state health advisories to restrict fish consumption. Even so, MDNR “has removed all waters listed for mercury” and has not listed many others known to be contaminated. Why? The department claims that it did not want to give the public the mistaken impression that only the listed streams are impaired by mercury—given that the major source of mercury, according to MDNR, is atmospheric deposition.
While the Clean Water Act requires that all waters be “fishable,” meaning capable of supporting aquatic life, MDNR decided not to maintain or include on the 303(d) list a considerable number of streams known to have dissolved oxygen levels below state standards. These exclusions were based on the novel assumption that some streams have “naturally” low dissolved oxygen levels—an assumption which has yet to be factually established. Indeed, many of these unlisted streams were in urban or agricultural areas with multiple potential causes of low dissolved oxygen.
MDNR struck more than 50 streams and lakes from the 303(d) list for having “insufficient” information—despite the fact that that information was sufficient to place them on the list in 2002 or earlier. The agency also elected to effectively ignore the 80,000 miles of unclassified streams (more than three-fourths of all stream miles in Missouri) by refusing to apply the available criteria designed to protect them. Both actions, as well as others undertaken in keeping waters off the new list, place the department clearly outside the bounds established by the Clean Water Act and EPA regulations. MDNR is now reviewing public comments submitted on the proposed 303(d) list (see the Coalition’s comments below) and may propose a few additions and/or deletions to the list based on those comments. Should the Clean Water Commission approve the changes, another 30-day comment period will be held on those streams. A final Commission vote on the full list will likely come at its May meeting.
Whatever the state eventually produces, however, the final say on what streams are impaired in Missouri will go to EPA. The state must demonstrate to EPA “good cause” for its delistings and decisions not to add to the list many clearly impaired waters. Given the poor justifications the state has provided for these actions and the many objections EPA raised to the state’s list in 2002, we expect the state to be in for a very bumpy ride.