• J.D. Solomon

This New Approach for Nutrients helps Root Cause Analysis


The USEPA release of new assessment tools to thwart harmful algal blooms is a step in the right direction. In particular, the new planning tool N-steps is aligned well with the basic processes that should be used in the root cause analysis of a harmful algal bloom (HAB).


N-STEPS stands for Nutrient Scientific Technical Exchange Partnership & Support. It contains broader information like technical support documents, case studies, tools, and data sources. N-STEPS is really aimed at helping water quality managers derive a numeric nutrient criteria program. However, within that intent lies the tools necessary for good root cause analysis.


For example, management goals should explicitly state the desired level of support and describe the overall processes, entities, and conditions that are desired for protection. This sounds like basic stuff for most reliability engineers, but as the guidance points out, most nutrient protection management goals are too soft and too narrative to be effective. Recommended questions for management goals include:

  • What does the desired quality (e.g., sustainability, support, integrity) mean to the particular water body or system?

  • Which resources and processes are to be protected and sustained, and why?

  • How will I know when the goal has been achieved?


Problem formulation also receives a large emphasis. Like management strategies, the guidance focuses on making the problem statement specific to the water body (system) at hand. The problem statement should also include endpoints for measurement and conceptual models for predicting system behavior. The guidance provided for developing the problem formulation includes a variety of aspects and questions for each aspect. For example, key recommended questions for source and stressor characteristics include:

  • What is the nutrient source? Is it anthropogenic, natural, point source, or diffuse nonpoint source?

  • What is the stressor? Is it chemical, biological, or physical?

  • What is the mode of action?


This sounds basic to most reliability engineers. However, in the world of nutrients and harmful algal blooms, it is a step away from unhelpful narrative goals and closer to specific and measurable goals and endpoints. Framing the problem is extremely important to prevent failure. It is doubly important when performing a root cause analysis on biological systems with non-linear behaviors. USEPA’s recent release of N-STEPS is indeed a step in the right direction.


JD Solomon Inc provides services at the nexus of the natural and built environments. Contact us for more information on FAST Root Cause Analysis, risk & reliability assessments, and third-party reviews.