The development of policy approaches for reducing nitrogen pollution to coastal waters of the USA. Academic Article uri icon


  • Two-thirds of the coastal rivers and bays in the United States are degraded from nutrient pollution, and nitrogen inputs these waters continue to increase. The nitrogen comes from a variety of sources, including runoff from agricultural fields, concentrated animal feeding operations, atmospheric deposition from fossil fuel combustion, and sewage and septic wastes. Technical solutions for nitrogen pollution exist at reasonable cost. That most of these solutions have not yet been implemented to any significant extent across the United States suggests that new policy approaches are necessary. The best solution may involve a combination of voluntary and mandatory approaches, applying different approaches to different sources of nitrogen pollution. A watershed-based approach that relies heavily on voluntary mechanisms (such as crop-yield insurance to reduce over-fertilization) is likely to be the most effective for some sources of nitrogen (such as runoff from agricultural fields), while a uniform national regulatory approach may be better for others (such as NO(x) emissions from fossil fuel combustion). Implementation of management strategies should be carefully coupled to monitoring programs to assess the effectiveness of these strategies. While both nitrogen and phosphorus are important to control, the focus should be on nitrogen management, in part because nitrogen is more generally the causal agent of coastal eutrophication. Also, while nitrogen-control practices tend to also reduce phosphorus pollution, phosphorus-control practices often have little effect on nitrogen. Although current scientific and technical knowledge is sufficient to begin to make substantial progress toward solving coastal nitrogen pollution, progress will be made more quickly and more cost effectively with increased investment in appropriate scientific research.

publication date

  • September 2005