Finally, targeted federal action on Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone

By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune
September 29, 2009, 1:12AM

Nutrients from Midwest farming help cause the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.That focus, which had been lacking, is the point of a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program. The agency will spend $320 million over four years for projects to reduce runoff in a dozen states that drain into the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The USDA will identify specific farms along streams and tributaries that carry the highest amounts of nutrient pollution — a first.  

That’s likely to be more effective than broad conservation initiatives that are available to all farmers, and it’s encouraging to see a federal agency taking a more targeted approach to reducing runoff.  

Nitrogen and phosphorus that make crops thrive have the same effect on algae in the Gulf. When bumper crops of algae die, their decomposition sucks oxygen out of the water. The resulting oxygen-poor water kills bottom-dwelling organisms and chases away fish in an area that’s typically the size of Connecticut. Researchers warn that the ecological changes in the Gulf could become permanent.

The USDA program is a start in addressing this serious environmental problem, but only a start. Efforts to curb nutrient pollution have lacked urgency, relying on voluntary measures taken by states with no federal funding and no one in charge. State and federal agencies set a 2015 deadline for reducing the dead zone to a quarter of its historic size. But states don’t even have to come up with plans until 2013, and there’s no federal agency enforcing the deadline.  

Last month, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General urged that agency to set enforceable limits on nutrient pollutants in rivers and streams. The report said that the agency needs to set standards for nationally significant waters, specifically the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, in order to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.  

The USDA program is a welcome step, but the EPA and USDA both need to show greater leadership in attacking this national issue.