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Most of Louisiana’s waterways are polluted. Biggest reasons? Fertilizer and sewage

Cypress trees line Lake Maurepas on June 26, 2021. Like more than 90% of Louisiana's assessed water bodies, the lake isn't fully supportive of fish and wildlife habitat due to invasive plants and low oxygen levels.
Halle Parker
Cypress trees line Lake Maurepas on June 26, 2021. Like more than 90% of Louisiana's assessed water bodies, the lake isn't fully supportive of fish and wildlife habitat due to invasive plants and low oxygen levels.

Land runoff from farms and home sewage systems is the greatest threat to Louisiana’s waterways, according to a new analysis from the Environmental Integrity Project, a national nonpartisan watchdog.

As of 2020, more than 90% of Louisiana’s assessed water bodies failed to meet water quality standards for either wildlife habitat or recreation. The state also includes the largest expanse of polluted estuaries in the nation. While industrial pollution has played a role, it isn’t the biggest problem.

Agricultural pollution loaded with nutrients creates toxic algal blooms across the water’s surface. Those blooms remove oxygen from the water, harming fish and wildlife.

Meanwhile, unmaintained home sewage systems allow raw sewage to leak into the soil and find its way into bayous, lakes and streams, rendering them unsafe for swimming.

These types of land runoff pollution – called nonpoint sources – are not regulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972 law, unlike industrial pollution discharged directly into waterways. Today, there are limited options and incentives for cleaning up the practices on land that plague Louisiana’s waterways.

“To get improvement in the water, you have to spend a lot of money on the land,” said Andrew Barron, the water quality program coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. “If we don't protect the local water bodies, they're not going to be protecting us. We're not going to have clean drinking water. We're not going to have places to fish and swim.”

Just a small fraction of Louisiana’s waterways are assessed due to limited staff and time, but Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality senior scientist Al Hindrichs said the staff tries to sample the most downstream points in small segments of the state’s watersheds to pull a “representative snapshot.”

'Fishable and swimmable'

The Clean Water Act of 1972 passed at a time when rivers caught fire and raw sewage was dumped directly into lakes. Congress set a goal to make all water bodies in the nation “fishable and swimmable” by the mid-1980s – a deadline that has long passed.

The landmark law did enable stricter monitoring and regulation of industrial and water treatment facilities, limiting the chemical and human waste discharged into rivers, lakes and streams. That pollution is considered “point source” because it’s discharged from a single point.

But Congress shied away from regulating nonpoint source pollution, in part, to avoid dealing with the farm lobby, according to the Environmental Integrity Project’s report. The nonprofit conducts its own investigative research and reporting, funded with grants and donations.

The law left room for states to step in and create stricter rules, but that hasn’t happened in Louisiana or much of the rest of the country.

“Most states are wary of entering into that kind of a territory where they would be regulating farmers,” said LDEQ senior environmental scientist John Sheehan.

National environmental groups, such as the Environmental Integrity Project, argue closing the “loophole” for agriculture and other nonpoint sources – the largest sources of impairment across the country – could help improve water quality and spur more concerted efforts to tackle an issue that currently hinges on voluntary participation to solve.

'Spirit of cooperation'

Without a regulatory stick, efforts to address nonpoint source pollution have been piecemeal. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality and environmental groups work with individuals to address sources one-by-one — whether that’s alerting someone of their leaky system or having farmers add safeguards against soil erosion.

State staff focus on “bringing people in” and helping them understand their impact, said Sheehan, who felt the approach treated people with more respect.

“We're trying to get people on board with not only maintaining their home sewer systems, but also providing good stewardship for the land,” he said. “Soil is a resource and there's no reason that we should be wasteful of that resource.”

To address the pervasive sewage problem, the state agency and environmental groups try to incentivize homeowner action by offering free inspections.

Pontchartrain Conservancy Water Quality Program Manager Brady Skaggs said they rely on “a spirit of cooperation” when going door-to-door in areas they’ve pinpointed as pollution hot spots. The problem is most apparent in rural or residential areas without a regional water tie-in.

These home sewer systems need maintenance every five years, but there’s no legal requirement for regular inspections. Sometimes there’s money to help with repairs, other times, the maintenance comes out of the homeowner’s pocket.

“It's not a glamorous thing. It's not really something (people) want to deal with on the weekends, or even at any time, and so a lot of that gets largely unattended to,” Barron said.

Eve Troeh

The national estuary program also conducts free inspections of onsite treatment systems within their own watershed, and have found that 70% to 80% of those inspected are failing, he said.

So far, Skaggs said the majority of people have been willing to fix their systems. But, long-term, he would prefer to see some of these areas moved under a regional water treatment system, treated by a facility that is strictly regulated and would be considered a point source.

On farms, organizations such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service work directly with farmers to implement best management practices such as cover crops to limit soil erosion and improve soil health, and fencing to keep livestock from stomping around in waterways.

Louisiana isn’t considering broad policy changes to tackle these issues right now, but Barron noted that agencies are looking to change how water is managed in the state. Ongoing efforts to retain water in areas longer and address flooding on a regional scale could also help with water pollution by decreasing the amount of runoff overall.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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