Despite promises, dead zone growing

By Chris Kirkham
Times-Picayune, December 02, 2007

Little progress made halfway to deadline
A decade ago, a team of government experts and environmental researchers banded together to tackle an alarming — and growing — disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico.
A lifeless, oxygen-depleted band of ocean water stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Texas border had grown to more than 6,000 square miles that summer, larger than the state of Connecticut.
Four years later, their research on the Gulf "dead zone" led to an agreement among nine states, numerous federal agencies and two American Indian tribes to significantly reduce the size by 2015.
Solving the problem is a vast undertaking. Fertilizer runoff and wastewater from farms and towns upstream in the nation’s heartland pour billions of pounds of excess nutrients into the Mississippi, and eventually the Gulf, each year, sparking unnatural algae blooms that choke off the oxygen supply vital for marine life.
With diffuse streams and rivulets of the Mississippi draining more than 40 percent of the continental United States, pinpointing and halting the source of the dead zone has eluded policymakers over the years. And targeted federal financing to address the problem has never materialized.
Now at the halfway mark for the 2015 goal, the dead zone is still growing — reaching nearly 8,000 square miles this year — one of the largest recorded. The federal and state task force recently released an update to the reduction plan, calling for states along the Mississippi River to enact strict water quality standards and encouraging farmers to limit fertilizers on land near streams.
But the new action plan states the 2015 goal is unlikely to be met, and record high corn prices from the ethanol boom are bringing more farmland on line. Without more political will from all states, including Louisiana, many researchers say the dead zone problem will persist long into the future, at the peril of the Gulf’s ecosystem.
"These are things we all were well aware of in 2000 and 2001. There’s nothing particularly new in what they’re proposing," said Don Scavia, a professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan who led one of the first federal studies of the dead zone in 2000. "We’re now starting to find impacts on the shrimp catch. . . . We’re at the point where it may be hard to recover, because the ecosystem has changed so much."
No new programs created
After the 2001 agreement, federal agencies and Mississippi River states went forward knowing they would have to reduce pollutants in the river using existing federal programs. No "dead zone" line item exists in any federal budget.
But the report targeted programs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies that would address bits of the nutrient problem, mostly caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus.
The USDA provides incentives to encourage farmers to retire farmland to prevent erosion, restore wetlands that could soak up fertilizer runoff and install buffers between fields and streams. EPA programs encourage states to set limits on the nutrients released into their waterways.
But the majority of these programs are voluntary, relying on farmers or municipalities who may never have seen the Gulf of Mexico to take the initiative.
"The lag times are tremendous . . . it may be four, five, six years before a farmer sees reductions in nitrogen," said Otto Doering, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University in Indiana. "This is something you have to do on faith . . . and it’s tough to go on faith when faith costs you something."
Still, USDA officials point to nearly 4 million acres of farmland taken out of production for wetlands or buffer zones between 2000 and 2006, and 18.3 million acres under nutrient management plans.
But with corn prices reaching record highs to feed the nation’s hunger for ethanol production, more than 15 million new acres of farmland were devoted to corn this year than in 2006. Gary Mast, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said additional farmland doesn’t necessarily translate to more nutrient pollution.
"It depends how those extra acres are managed," he said. "If they’re managed correctly, we don’t have to go backward. "
Meeting 2015 goal unlikely
In the years since the 2001 report, many researchers have criticized a lack of coordination among the states and a lack of leadership by the EPA. A recent National Research Council report calls on the EPA to be much more vigilant in enforcing nutrient pollution, calling the Mississippi River system an "orphan" in need of guidance.
The new dead zone action plan sticks to many of the original goals from 2001, including reducing the average size of the dead zone to 1,930 square miles by 2015. But the new plan acknowledges that "it may not be possible to achieve this goal by 2015."
"We’re not taking it off the table, and at the very least we’re going to make progress toward this," said Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water and the chairman of the federal task force to address the dead zone.
The new report also points out that several of the original goals from 2001 were not achieved: Water-quality monitoring stations in the Mississippi have been scaled back; regional limits on nutrients were supposed to be set by late 2002, but still are not in place.
New goals laid out in the revised plan, open for public comment through January, include getting more specific data about whether conservation programs are working and targeting conservation programs to farmland and cities that contribute the most nutrients to the river system.
Some researchers say the new plan retreats from the specific timelines set in 2001, simply calling for progress to be made again in five years.
"All of the items in the plan should be pursued, for sure, but it comes as too little too late in many respects," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who has studied dead zones in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf since the 1980s. "I would say based upon past practice, I don’t have any great reason to think the action plan means ‘action.’ "
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Chris Kirkham can be reached at or (504) 826-3786.