‘Dead zone’ strategy rattles farm interests

By pbeeman@dmreg.com

The fight over the Gulf of Mexico’s "dead zone" – a problem scientists say can be traced in large part to Iowa and its sister farming states – has ramped up as the Obama administration considers a regulatory attack on the problem. 
Suzanne Schwartz, who directs a division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working on the dead-zone issue, said the federal government and Louisiana researchers are checking to see whether the pollution violates water quality standards.

If it does, "Louisiana could set standards for what comes in," using the legal authority of the Clean Water Act, Schwartz said at a news conference this week. "That is not a short-term, immediate action but something we are looking at." 
Said Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: "This is an issue we take seriously." 
The possibility drew immediate fire from Iowa agricultural interests, which pointed out that this year’s dead zone is far smaller than predicted and among the smallest in recent history.

The dead zone is an area left largely lifeless in summer as algae fed by a mixture of Midwestern fertilizers, sewage and dead plants from the Mississippi River watershed die off, consuming oxygen. Biologists call this hypoxia. There are at least 200 such zones worldwide. 
The U.S. Geological Survey has said that nine states – Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi – are responsible for 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus running into the Gulf of Mexico. At issue is not only water quality in those states but disruption of Louisiana’s lucrative shrimping industry.

New attention on the issue will include a meeting of the federal Gulf Hypoxia Task Force in Des Moines Sept. 23-24. Details are pending. 
The Clean Water Act machinery often leads to new pressures on polluters to limit contamination, though farming has largely escaped that kind of regulation in the past. 
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said farmers need to cut the amount of fertilizer getting into waterways – for Iowa’s benefit and the gulf’s.

However, Northey, a member of the task force that will meet in Des Moines, said he doesn’t support legal attacks on the problem. There is too much uncertainty about the sources of the nitrogen and phosphorus and about whether fertilizer cuts would help, he said. 
Farm interests favor a nonregulatory approach: encouraging drainage districts to augment federal spending on voluntary wetlands construction to sweep pollutants from water before it runs away.

Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said such programs can cut nitrogen and phosphorus, plus boost crop yields. The government needs to spend more on the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which could combine wetland projects with improved drainage, Robinson said. 
"It will take 325 years at this pace to put enough CREP lands out there to address the gulf hypoxia," Robinson said. "We need to accelerate our efforts."

The EPA’s Schwartz said her agency is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider incentives for farmers and conservation programs that could help ease the flow of fertilizer, lawn runoff and industrial wastes. 
The USDA is led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. 
Nancy Rabalais, a chief dead-zone scientist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, noted that there is no official goal for cutting phosphorus and nitrogen loads in the Mississippi. The federal task force that will meet in Des Moines wants loads cut by 45 percent by 2015 to reduce the zone to 2,000 square miles.

In the Black Sea, levels of nitrogen and phosphorus spiked in the 1960s through the 1980s, Rabalais said. A dead zone grew from virtually nothing to more than 15,000 square miles, she added. 
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a huge drop in crop fertilizer use because of price spikes, and nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the lake dropped by half. The dead zone disappeared in six years, but fisheries have struggled to revive, Rabalais said.

Rabalais expects the Louisiana dead zone to shrink significantly in five to 10 years if the Mississippi contaminant loads are cut by nearly half. 
Scientists predicted this year’s dead zone off Louisiana would be about 8,000 square miles, just shy of the record set in 2002. Instead, the zone covered 3,000 square miles, as wind and low flow in the Mississippi improved conditions. The dead zone has averaged 6,000 square miles over the past five years.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s Robinson said the missed prediction shows both the huge role weather plays in the issue and the uncertainty that setting limits on nitrogen and phosphorus would lead to clear improvement in the gulf. 
"You can establish any number you want, but when Mother Nature has this much to do with the size of the zone, the regulatory approach isn’t the best," he said.