Commission boosts protection for Missouri rivers, streams and lakes

Missouri’s Clean Water Commission on Wednesday approved sweeping new rules that significantly increase protection for rivers, streams and lakes, making them safer for swimming and fishing and aquatic life.

The unanimous vote by the citizen commission comes 13 years after Missouri was warned by the Environmental Protection Agency that the state’s water quality standards needed updating. Federal intervention seemed increasingly probable had the commission failed to approve the rules, which bring Missouri at least nearer to compliance with the 40-year-old Clean Water Act.

“It’s been a long journey,” Karen Flournoy, water division director for the EPA’s regional office, told commission members before they voted. “We think this action represents a huge improvement in the protection of Missouri’s waters.”

The revised water quality standards, expected to take effect next year, still require formal EPA approval. The rules assign specific limits for pollutants discharged into an additional 90,000 miles of rivers, streams and 2,100 lakes across Missouri, and will require expensive upgrades for many small sewage treatment facilities across the state.

The Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, dictates that all of the nation’s waters should be made safe for fishing and swimming, or else there must be a scientific study showing why they cannot.

To meet the goal, specific limits are set for the amount of pollutants in the water and those limits are used as the basis for discharge permits issued by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to factories, wastewater facilities and large livestock operations.

Missouri, however, went decades without assigning uses or numeric limits for some 150,000 miles of rivers, streams, creeks and wetlands, which are designated as “unclassified.”

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment twice sued the EPA to force the agency to step in and implement standards.

The second of the cases was decided in February 2012. The judge sided with the EPA, saying the agency could use its discretion to decide whether to promulgate water-quality rules in Missouri. But the same order also made clear that the state was in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Representatives from industry and municipal utilities and environmental advocates urged the commission to approve the water-quality standards amendment on Wednesday even though each group also recommended some changes in the future.

The Missouri Farm Bureau neither supported nor opposed the rules, but said the price tag couldn’t be ignored. According to a DNR report, public and private wastewater facilities may face $2 billion in capital projects and $200 million a year in additional operating costs as a result.

Leslie Holloway, the Farm Bureau’s state and local governmental affairs director, also said the rules probably wouldn’t end “unnecessary litigation,” a reference to the coalition’s lawsuits.

Lorin Crandall, the coalition’s clean water program director, fired back. “I would say it’s necessary litigation that got us here today,” he said.

The coalition said the rules adopted Wednesday represent an important step forward. But the group believes they don’t go far enough to protect wetlands and small streams.

“We’re not going to stop pursuing full protections for all waters of the U.S.,” Crandall said.

The DNR, too, acknowledged that the water-quality standards remain a work in progress.

“The rule is not perfect and it will require some fine tuning,” said John Hoke of the department’s water protection program. “But I believe we’re now on the right path.”