Agriculture money aims to curb Gulf dead zone

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 10:21 a.m.

The action comes 12 years after a task force was formed to combat the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an area off Louisiana and Texas — this year it was larger than Delaware — where oxygen is so low it can’t support marine life.

The initiative announced last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will funnel $320 million over four years to projects in 12 Mississippi and Ohio River states, from Louisiana north to Minnesota and east to Ohio. The agency will identify farms along specific streams and tributaries shown to contribute the highest amounts of pollution and find ways to reduce it.

"It’s a very welcome announcement and a very tangible effort by the federal government to deal with this problem instead of just talk about it," said Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a leading researcher of dead zones in the Gulf and the Chesapeake Bay. "But, as always, the devil is in the details."

Boesch is former director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, the Cocodrie research center at the forefront of dead-zone research.

Scientists have long understood that the dead zone is caused by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from farms. The mixture of runoff, referred to as "nutrients," drains down the Mississippi River to be dumped in the Gulf.

The extra nutrients feed massive algae blooms that die off, sink and decompose, sucking up most of the oxygen in the water. That forces marine life in the area to either flee or die, creating large expanses of lifeless water bottoms. The dead zone has spanned an average of 6,000 square miles in recent years.

And while a task force was formed 12 years ago to begin dealing with the dead zone, officials say that agricultural and political interests have made moving policy forward difficult.

It’s not that the Gulf dead zone has been difficult to figure out; plenty of research has pinpointed the problem’s source, Boesch said.

"The real limitation has been the agricultural states haven’t been willing to take this on," Boesch said. "Everyone likes the farmer, and they’re having a tough time getting by as is. But it’s really more of an industrial area, and there are very large corporations involved."

In addition, political factors have gotten in the way, Boesch said. The Mississippi River-Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, the group assigned with tackling the problem, formed its action plan at the end of the Clinton administration, Boesch said.

"The Bush administration did not assign these environmental issues as high a priority," Boesch said.

Several major studies have taken the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to task for failing to coordinate pollution efforts in the river.One 2007 report says the EPA has not been using its authority under the Clean Water Act to work with states to curb agricultural pollution.

Nancy Rabalais, one of the nation’s top dead-zone researchers and current LUMCON director, said federal officials will need to coordinate any effort to curb the problem among many state, local and federal agencies.

States need to work with the EPA to set specific pollution-reduction goals in rivers and streams and test to make sure that programs are working, Rabalais said.

States and federal agencies also need to be held more accountable, said Matt Rota, director of the Water Resources Program at the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group.

For example, task force officials have agreed to reduce the size of the dead zone to 2,000 square miles by 2015, "but there’s no accountability with that goal," Rota said.

"We should not only come up with plans but be accountable for reductions," he said.

It’s a positive step, but the cash was already budgeted in the Farm Bill rather than a new allocation, Boesch said.

And while$320 million might sound like a lot, the money must be doled among12 states over four years, which could come down to as little as $8 million per state, Rabalais said.

The money shouldn’t be divided equitably, though each state will likely want its piece, Boesch said. But for the program to work, it must really be targeted, as promised, at the biggest polluters.

"If they divide it up evenly among the states, we’ll know they’re not serious," Boesch said