Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin

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The regulatory term in the U.S. Clean Water Act requires that state environmental agencies complete Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) assessments for impaired waters which should then be reviewed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (EPA, 2018). It should be the responsibility of each state to restore and protect our Nation’s waters, however this has not always been the case. Nationally there are 40% of assessed waters that do not meet these standards (Soupir, 2019) set forth by CWA due to the number of impaired waters because of excess nutrient related causes. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impacts, and widely publicized, consequence of this lack of action is the effects these impaired waters are having on the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). Iowa’s contribution has been tremendous to the increased dead zone of the MRB due to our agricultural practices. Lately it has been the trend for organizations to go in litigation with the government over the enactment of, or lack thereof, TMDLs in their state. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the repercussions of such actions and how it may actually affect CWAs intended purpose of establishing TMDLs. It is my belief that if the EPA begins to take action first, by taking such steps as a “pollution diet”, this may alleviate the need for some of the litigations in the first place.

The MSRB begins in northern Minnesota and spans 2,350 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico (EPA, 2018). The basin has hundreds of tributaries that include waters from parts of 31 states that drain into this basin. The MSRB is the third largest river basin in the world. The Basin provides a plethora of resources to the United States (U.S.) and helps facilitate commerce, tourism and fishing. Throughout history, this basin has been a staple that has assisted in the industrial revolution by way of steam boats, trade, damming systems, etc. The basin has also been a major source of water supply which assisted in the enhancement of agriculture, industries and the buildup of cities along the river. However, with the good there comes the bad. The production of a more industrialized and agriculturally sound country has caused a mass amount of waste to be in turn dumped, leaked and leached into the MSRB. Agriculture especially has caused large amounts of nutrients, due to nitrogen and phosphorus, to be discharged into the river systems which then leads into the Gulf of Mexico. The excess of these pollutants is the leading cause of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia occurs when water near the bottom of the Gulf contains less than two parts per million of dissolved oxygen (EPA, 2019).

As of 2018, the hypoxia zone measured 2,720 square miles, which well exceeds EPA’s goal of reducing the zone to 1,931 square miles. The rate at which these nutrients are contributing to the larger water systems (Gulf of Mexico) is exceeding the natural capacity of the MRSB to remove nutrients. This hypoxia is negatively affecting marine wildlife and local fisheries in the Gulf. Unfortunately, Iowa is the leading contributor to the nitrate loads in the MSRB. According to a study that evaluated data from 1999 to 2016, Iowa was contributing in excess of 55% of the long-term nitrate load to the basin (Jones, 2018). Based on these current statistics and Iowa’s history of pollution contribution to the MSRB, the time has now come for the EPA to intervene the states behalf to clean up our waters and thus decreasing our contribution to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the biggest contributors to this overall problem, and one who should be the main stakeholder in this TMDL process, are those involved in agricultural production (farmers, ranchers, manufacturers etc.). A research article published in the Journal of Environmental Management discusses financial incentives farmers can receive by helping to repair the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Partaking in tasks that decrease nutrient runoff in the MRB are possible by such land management practices that include restoring floodplain forests and wetlands, river management, utilizing cover crops or adopting a no-till practice on their fields. (Tallis, 2019). Although a farmer would want to make efforts towards a TMDL there can be challenges achieving these tasks for those involved in agricultural practices because to implement these initiatives they would initially lose money and must take land out of production (for some of the land management practices).

The second stakeholder I would suggest being involved in the TMDL process should be an environmentalist group such as the Iowa Environmental Council. One of their main purpose is to “develop and adopt solutions that are economical, sustainable and environmentally sound”. (Clean Water and Land Steward, nd). It is their belief that the EPA is decades behind on protecting the MSRB. Based on a report written by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (Sigford, 2016) they believe that the EPA has been aware of the nutrient pollution problem in the MSRB since the 1990s and has still not taken enough action to enforce TMDLs on individual states. Their concern is that the harmful effects of nutrient pollution is beginning to significantly impact Iowa’s recreational lakes and can cause adverse symptoms such as rashes, blisters, vomiting and asthma-like symptoms, etc., to persons who are exposed to these waters. Their biggest stance is that Iowa needs enforced water quality standards that address the causes of impairments (Dvorak, 2018).

Finally, an important stakeholder would be the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The main goal for IADNR is to improve water quality and remove streams and lakes from the impaired list in conjunction with the section 303(d) of the CWA developed in 2011 (Berckes, 2015). IADNR’s approach to TMDLs was to analyze the situation the first 15 years by evaluating waters listed on the impaired list and then shifted to developing TMDL documents focusing on small lake watersheds that held specific local interests. After this, there were to be assessments. As of 2016, the IA DNR has prioritized TMDLs to address impairments on waterbodies with high nutrient related issues and eutrophic conditions such as algae, turbidity and pH.

Working together, the aforementioned stakeholder can successfully implement TMDLs for the state of Iowa waterbodies if they follow the EPA-developed strategies I will layout in this report. Each stakeholder has past work or experience that can be brought together to help reduce the amount of pollutants leaving Iowa waters draining into the MSRB. The first step in this strategy would be to use the list identifying waters requiring TMDLs created by the IADNR and then ranking sites on these lists in terms of prioritization (EPA. These first two strategies would involve knowledge from all stakeholders. IADNR has conducted research on this already, but the environmental agency and the farmers can assist in identifying how the list should be ranked according to community and land owner needs a capability. It is the State’s desire to foremost reduce the excess nutrient content that is running off into the MSRB, but for the community, their concern is also the aesthetics of our waterbodies, such as excess algae and turbidity. The IEC will have vast knowledge of public needs and wants and can bring this to the forefront when discussing priority ranking. Part of the first two strategies should be developing a timeline. The three stakeholders may have different timelines set in mind, but coming to a reasonable middle ground will force all parties involved to see all ends of the situation. The ultimate limitation for IADNR is resources, such as manpower and funding. By working together, these resources can be discussed and everyone involved can ensure that as the resources become available they are promptly utilized in the furtherance of the TMDLs.

A final strategy in the successful implementation of TMDLs would be to work together with State agencies, Tribes and the EPA to enforce more stringent laws, local ordinances and programs that are incentive-based in nature. (EPA,). One of the biggest problems with implementing TMDLs is that many stakeholders do not understand or realize there are incentives to implementing plans that promote the success of TMDLs. For landowners surrounding waterbody systems or whos pollution may contribute to the problem, they would have to acquire some significant losses to remedy the problem. Even if they wanted to, some cannot give up their livelihood to do so. However, if made aware of the incentives, such as tax breaks, reimbursements and funding available to them, they may be more willing to implement more land strategy plans.

By following my proposed course of action, the primary positive outcome would be better water systems within Iowa and a reduction of pollutants being dumped into the MSRB. Furthermore, there will be improvement to data needs, improving communications with stakeholders, more detailed TMDLs that can be used for implementation planning and better allocation of funds and resources of how to obtain further funding if that is a need. There can be improvement on how government agencies and the community focus their resources to encourage implementation of TMDLs. TMDLs can become more transparent to the public and other stakeholders not directly involved in the process due to the engagement of these groups, by the three stakeholders mentioned in this report, during the planning stages. Finally, if during the process of creating TMDLs, there are diverse groups working together there is no need for litigations to take place if they are all working towards the same goal, which would have been laid out before forming such a taskforce. Less litigation would equal better allocation of funds which would go towards the implementation of TMDLs instead of towards legal fees. Furthermore, it would be a better use of everyone’s time to focus more energy on the implementation of cleaner waters instead of fighting over who is responsible for ensuring this task is done.


  1. Overview of Identifying and Restoring Impaired Waters under Section 303(d) of the CWA. (2018, September 13). Retrieved from
  2. Soupir, M. (2019). Watershed management: Legislative basis and TMDLs [PowerPoint Slides]
  3. The Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). (2016, September 09). Retrieved from
  4. Northern Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone. (2019, January 31). Retrieved from
  5. Jones, C. S., Nielsen, J. K., Schilling, K. E., & Weber, L. J. (2018). Iowa stream nitrate and the Gulf of Mexico. PloS one, 13(4), e0195930. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195930
  6. Tallis, Heather, Polasky, Stephen, Hellmann, Jessica, Springer, Nathaniel P., Biske, Rich, Degeus, Dave, Weaver, Sarah Kate. (2019). Five financial incentives to revive the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and Mississippi basin soils. Journal of Environmental Management, 233, 30-38.
  7. Clean Water and Land Stewardship. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  8. Sigford, K. (2016) Decades of delay: EPA leadership still lacking in protecting America’s Great River. Retrieved from
  9. Berckes, J. (n.d.). Long-Term Vision for Assessment, Restoration, and Protection under the Clean Water Act Section 303(d) Program(pp. 1-9, Rep. No. 1).
  10. EPA. (1996). Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program: TMDL program implementation strategy. Retrieved from
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Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved May 21, 2024 , from

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