Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Importance of Minimizing Nutrients

Fall 2014 Issue

Phosphorus and nitrogen are vital nutrients that all plants and animals need to grow. However, excessive levels of nutrients can also harm the environment. When the nutrient levels in water are high, aquatic plants (including harmful algae blooms) grow. Their overabundance can clog water intakes, discourage recreation and alter habitat. When the plants die, they decompose, making the water oxygen poor. Fish and other aquatic life cannot survive without enough oxygen, so it must either leave the area, or die.

There are many sources of nutrients, the most common being: human waste from treatment plant discharges and inadequate septic systems; animal manure and other fertilizers; stormwater runoff that transports pet and animal wastes; and some industrial discharges. Because there are many sources, one single solution is not going to address the entire problem. New York is working to control nutrients in a number of ways.

Wastewater Treatment Facilities - all have permits that require effluent to not compromise water quality standards. If nutrient pollution is impairing recreation or other uses of a water body, permits for dischargers to those waters restrict the allowable amount of nutrients.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) - larger farms must also comply with state water pollution discharge permits, so the farmer must develop and implement a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan to mitigate sources of nutrient pollution with farm-specific best management practices.

Municipal Stormwater, Stormwater from Construction Sites and Certain Industrial Activities - NYSDEC permits require various practices to control the amount of nutrients and other pollutants from entering waterways from these potential sources.

Dishwasher Detergent and Nutrient Runoff Law - passed in 2010, this law prohibits (with some exceptions) the use of lawn fertilizer with phosphorus and the sale of dishwashing detergent containing phosphorus, reducing the amount of nutrients into waterways.

Watershed Plans - developed for a number of nutrient-impacted watersheds across the state, these plans outline multi-pronged strategies to control nutrient sources.

Green Infrastructure - an effective technique to control stormwater and reduce the transport of nutrients to waters, NYSDEC has been promoting GI through its stormwater permits and grant programs.

Combined Sewer Overflows or CSOs - can be significant sources of nutrients and where they occur, NYSDEC has been working with the municipalities to reduce CSOs and limit their impact on waterways.

Though nutrient pollution remains a challenge, progress is being made. For examples: 95 percent of the nutrient reductions outlined for the Long Island Sound has been achieved; phosphorus levels in the Cannonsville Reservoir have been reduced due to public investment to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities and whole farming planning initiatives; and, NYSDEC is working hard to identify and address sources of nutrient-driven harmful algal blooms.

While nutrient sources are numerous, so are the effective actions to limit them. I encourage you to look for ways that you can help solve this widespread problem.