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Feb. 13, 2024 |  By: Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

Missouri House bill would jeopardize millions in funding to fight water pollution

water pollution

By Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

Legislation backed by Missouri agriculture groups could slash the state’s clean water enforcement, jeopardizing millions of dollars in grants and raising the specter of a federal takeover. 

A Missouri House committee Monday night considered legislation that would remove “nonpoint sources” from the definition of contamination source in the state’s water laws, which critics say would undermine state environmental regulators’ efforts to control farm runoff.

According to the fiscal note prepared for the bill, its passage could mean $4.7 million in lost funding for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, including 17 staff members. 

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Kurtis Gregory of  Marshall, and agriculture groups that support his bill argue it offers farmers “regulatory certainty” in their operations. They fear as the law is currently written, state environmental regulators could start requiring a permit for anything and everything a farmer does. 

The goal is “making sure that no one is going to be out there (wondering), ‘Where’s the next Whack-A-Mole coming from?’”

Among the bill’s chief proponents is the Missouri Corn Growers Association. The group told Missouri House members the bill would clarify existing law. Right now, the group’s director of public policy, Derek Steen, said, the state is obligated “to be issuing permits to every farmer in every activity that’s going on on every farm.” 

“Whether you’re applying fertilizer, whether you’re putting in conservation practices, whether you’re running cattle on farm ground, is setting up the potential for a nonpoint source,” Steen said.

Steen said there “would be potentially millions of these sorts of permits out there,” though he acknowledged the state is not requiring such permits. 

“Nonpoint source” pollution refers to indirect means through which water can become contaminated. Farm fertilizers and animal waste wash off of fields, contributing nitrate and phosphorus pollution to rivers and streams. Sediment can wash from a parking lot into storm sewers and, eventually, rivers.

In the Midwest, nonpoint source pollution is a major source of contamination because of the concentration of farms. Of the rivers listed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as “impaired waters,” 87% are there because of nonpoint source pollution.

Nutrient pollution from farms is primarily responsible for a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that’s currently larger than the state of Delaware. In some years, it has been as large as New Jersey.

The pollution flows down the Mississippi River into the gulf, contributing to algae blooms. When the algae dies, oxygen-consuming bacteria consumes the oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone where fish can’t survive. 

It’s impossible to impose measurable limits on nonpoint source pollution since it’s not confined. But the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has voluntary incentives and programs meant to help farmers reduce their pollution. 

Critics of Gregory’s bill fear it would jeopardize funding for those efforts, laid out in the estimated $4.7 million cost included in the bill’s fiscal note. 

State Rep. Michael Burton, a Lakeshire Democrat who serves on the committee that heard the bill, said the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee should be focused on taking care of the environment.

“This appears to be doing the opposite,” Burton said. 

Burton also questioned the need for the bill considering that the state is not requiring permits for nonpoint source pollution. He appeared dubious of Steen’s claim that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources may start requiring the Missouri Department of Transportation to get a nonpoint source pollution permit for trucks that disperse salt during winter storms.

“I don’t see them doing that,” Burton said. “It seems like you’re really reaching there.” 

John Madras, a volunteer for the Sierra Club and former employee of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said nonpoint sources of pollution have been exempt from permitting requirements “from the date those laws were written.” 

“It’s never been there,” Madras said. “It’s never anticipated to be there.” 

State Rep. Doyle Justus, a Troy Republican, asked Madras, if the bill passes, whether it would make it legal for nonpoint sources to pollute MIssouris’ waters. 

Madras said: “I think it would be much more difficult to address situations where that occurs.”