EDITORIAL: A strategy for the dead zone

By The Times-Picayune
December 26, 2008

Little progress has been made in curbing nutrient pollution that causes the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, and a National Research Council report blames a lack of coordination among federal agencies and states.

The criticism is on target. No single agency is responsible for dealing with this issue, and the piecemeal approach has been completely ineffective. Instead of shrinking, the dead zone that forms off Louisiana‘s coast each summer continues to grow.  

States and federal agencies have set a 2015 deadline for reducing the dead zone to a quarter of its historic size, but it’s hard to see how that will happen when states don’t even have to say how they’ll accomplish that goal until 2013.

The National Research Council is urging faster action, pointing out that reversing environmental damage will take years. That’s a critical point, and the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should follow the report’s suggestions to take faster, more decisive action. 

EPA sought input from the council on how best to use existing financing and voluntary agriculture conservation programs to reduce pollution. The report urges the USDA and EPA to form a water quality center for the entire river basin that can evaluate the various efforts that are being made to reduce the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Mississippi River 

The report suggests launching 40 conservation projects on tributaries that show high levels of nutrients. Doing so will allow the agencies to determine which methods are the most effective in reducing nutrient pollution.

The report also recommends that EPA, USDA and Mississippi River basin states allocate nutrient caps and set an interim goal for the amount of nutrients that can enter the basin. That seems like a more effective way to start reducing nutrients than the nebulous goal of shrinking the dead zone.

Figuring out the best ways to keep nitrogen and phosphorus from entering the river and eventually the Gulf is important. But once those answers are in hand, state and federal agencies will have to muster the political will to use them and set meaningful limits.