Feds to fund Mississippi clean up from Minnesota to the Gulf

By TOM MEERSMAN , Minneapolis Star Tribune

The federal effort involving 12 states is aimed at shrinking Gulf of Mexico’s "dead zone"

The river that begins as a trickle in Itasca State Park and ends 2,350 miles later at the Gulf of Mexico will get a $320 million infusion from the federal government to improve water quality.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a program Thursday that will provide the money over the next four years to Minnesota and 11 other states in the Mississippi River basin.

Calling the river "a critical national resource," Vilsack said the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative will attempt to reduce excessive nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from farms that enters the river through its tributaries and creates a "dead zone" each summer in the Gulf of Mexico. The nutrients cause vast algae blooms that eventually die, sink to the bottom and are consumed by bacteria that rob the water of most of its oxygen.

In 2009, the dead zone covered about 3,000 square miles, slightly larger than Delaware. Although the zone was somewhat smaller than in other recent years, scientists and environmental leaders have expressed alarm since the 1990s about the large amounts of chemicals moving through the river and the repercussions on the gulf’s ecosystem.

Thursday’s announcement pleased Wayne Anderson, principal engineer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "It’s putting together some money that can start to make a difference and get the ball rolling," he said. For whatever reasons, he said, federal agencies have been able to collaborate on studying the problem for years, but not to fund direct solutions.

Anderson represented Minnesota at the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Des Moines, where Vilsack’s message was delivered by video. The task force, established more than a decade ago, includes 10 states and five federal agencies.

The new federal effort is designed to help farmers introduce conservation and management practices that avoid, control and trap runoff from their fields. Those may include planting more grasslands and wider buffer zones near waterways, changing tilling practices to reduce soil erosion and restoring or enlarging natural wetlands to slow runoff.

The program will be voluntary, and states, local governments and federal agencies in priority watersheds must compete for the funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The $80 million a year being spent on the initiative will come from conservation funds created as part of last year’s farm bill.

Minnesota River is key here

In Minnesota, much of the phosphorus and nitrogen comes from farm fields that drain into the Minnesota River, a major tributary of the Mississippi. Nutrients also come from livestock manure and from leaves and fertilizers that wash into waterways from cities.

Bob Shepard, administrator for the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said he supports the initiative. "I think Minnesota farmers and ranchers would look forward to working on those practices to help the situation," he said.

Anderson said that Minnesota contributes 4 to 7 percent of the nutrients to the gulf, according to studies, and that some nutrients may never leave the state, but accumulate in lakes and create local problems. He said that federal funding and a national focus on the problem are the best ways to solve what’s affecting the gulf. "It’s important to do our part, but also to know that other states are working on this, too, so that what we do

[in Minnesota] is going to make a difference," he said.

In his announcement, Vilsack pledged to "clean up the entire Mississippi River basin, a critical natural resource that provides drinking water for tens of millions of Americans." He acknowledged that industrial, municipal, residential and agricultural sources have all contributed pollutants to the river.

Michael Reuter, director of conservation strategies for the Nature Conservancy in the central United States, applauded the effort and called it the "right approach" to protect "a national treasure and a national icon."

Kris Sigford, a leader of the McKnight Foundation-funded Mississippi River Collaborative, has worked with other environmental leaders to petition the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for nitrogen and phosphorus and enforce them to shrink the dead zone. She said that more funding for farmers is a positive development, but should be viewed as a supplement to standards, not a substitute.

The other states in the initiative are Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388