Dead zone plan adrift

By Erika Engelhaupt
Environmental Science & Technology Online News Feed; April 2, 2008

Critics say the new action plan is not tough enough and won’t succeed without federal funding.
Last summer, a swath of Gulf of Mexico waters the size of New Jersey was virtually lifeless. For the past 40 years or so, dead zones have formed in the Gulf. Nutrients, mostly from farm fertilizers and other agricultural land use, run down the Mississippi River and feed huge algal blooms that choke off oxygen supplies.
Nine states contribute more than 75% of the nitrogen and phosphorus
that is polluting the Gulf of Mexico, according to recent USGS model results.
In 2001, after years of talk, federal and state agencies pledged for the first time to shrink the dead zone. But they have failed. Now, a second federal–state task force, led by the U.S. EPA, is in the final stages of revising the 2001 action plan, and many experts say this latest attempt at life support for the Gulf is likely to fail as well unless Congress approves new funding.
The new plan, which is scheduled for release in June, maintains the goal of shrinking the dead zone to about one-quarter of last summer’s size, or 5000 square kilometers, by 2015. However, it does not set targets for curtailing nutrient levels entering the Gulf. The 2001 plan recommended 30% cuts in nitrogen, and in 2007, EPA’s science advisory board  recommended tougher measures—45% cuts in both nitrogen and phosphorus. The new revision recognizes that 45% reductions "may be necessary" but does not set official goals.
"In some important ways, the plan not only doesn’t advance the action, it slows it down," says Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. According to the plan, states should complete new implementation strategies by 2013, he notes; this would allow only 2 years to achieve nutrient reductions before the 2015 deadline. "There are no serious timetables and no nutrient reduction goals,
so if you’re in an upriver state, how would you know what to do?" he asks.
The original action plan envisioned a coordinated effort across federal agencies with major new funding, but that never happened. Back in 2001, the task force’s coordinating committee drafted a budget of $1 billion per year for 5 years to enact the action plan, but agencies never advanced that budget and funding prospects dried up in the Bush Administration. "No one expects to get that amount of money now. But even more modest investments would go a long way," says Doug Daigle, who coordinates a committee composed of states bordering the lower Mississippi River. Investments would go a long way," says Doug Daigle, who coordinates a committee composed of states bordering the lower Mississippi River.
In the absence of targeted federal funding, a patchwork of voluntary programs funded by states and federal agencies tackles the dead zone. But these efforts aren’t enough, experts agree. Louisiana’s coast, for example, also faces wetland loss, sea-level rise, and the effects of decades-long mismanagement of the lower Mississippi River. These environmental crises must be tackled together, says Len Bahr, the Louisiana governor’s coastal science adviser and a member of the task force.
Planning has been fraught with objections from farm states and agriculture industry groups. At the final task force meeting in February in Chicago, Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources was the only party that refused to approve the plan. According to sources present at the meeting, Missouri’s complaints centered around the role of new model results from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which were published recently in
ES&T (2008, 42
[3], 822–830). The research ranked the state fourth for total nitrogen contribution to the Gulf and second for phosphorus.
The USGS model, called SPARROW, sparked an outcry from several states, including Missouri, over whether their contributions were higher than previously thought or lower, says USGS hydrologist Richard Alexander, the study’s lead author. States with low nutrient runoff in the study could risk losing state support and funding for nutrient-control programs, he notes. Other states balk at high estimates of their contributions that imply greater responsibility for the problem; for example, the study points to surprisingly high phosphorus runoff from range- and pastureland; this includes a variety of operations such as high-density feedlots, which may be hot spots.
Other recent research suggests that inaction already has worsened the low-oxygen conditions, called hypoxia. A paper by Eugene Turner of Louisiana State University and colleagues found that the effects of algal blooms carry over from year to year, making hypoxia increasingly harder to reduce (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, DOI 10.1021/es071617k). Increased corn planting for ethanol will also compromise the action plan’s goals, according to new research by Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia (Canada) (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2008, DOI10.1073/pnas.0708300105). "The majority of nutrients going to the Gulf of Mexico come from fertilizer, and the majority of that is from corn," Donner says. If all 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel mandated by 2022 came from corn, nitrogen export would increase by 34%, he notes.
With Congress tied up funding the Iraq war, new funding for hypoxia doesn’t seem a priority. For now, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is working to appropriate Congressional funds to combat hypoxia, according to a staffer. "We remain committed to the goal of 2015, recognizing that it may not be realistic," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles about the proposed hypoxia plan. "But we have to keep the goal to help momentum continue." —ERIKA ENGELHAUPT