Gulf dead-zone efforts faulted

By Federal mandates needed, activists say
Times Picayune, Wednesday, June 13, 2007

As federal and state officials met in New Orleans Tuesday to review new data about the Gulf of Mexico’s growing "dead zone," environmental groups and scientists assailed them for slow progress in reducing the size of the oxygen-starved band of ocean water.

The task force, which represents 10 states and eight federal agencies, has been meeting since 1997 to address the Gulf’s dead zone, which in some years grows to an area the size of Connecticut and causes marine life to either flee or perish.

In 2001 the task force pledged to reduce the dead zone to less than a quarter of its size by 2015, but many experts say efforts to cut down on the nutrients that cause it have so far fallen short. 

"As the years have gone by we’ve seen nothing happening," said Tracy Kuhns, executive director of Louisiana Bayoukeeper, a local sustainable-fisheries group. "We hear talk, we see studies, but we need action. Without that, we won’t have a fishery."

A group of 11 dead-zone researchers also sent a letter to the task force saying "there is no evidence of progress toward that goal, and modest implementation of actions to achieve it."

Part of the challenge in addressing the dead zone, which forms in late spring every year and can stretch from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Texas border, is a lack of federal financing targeting the problem.

Excess nutrients from farms, wastewater-treatment plants and other sources up the river lead to massive algae blooms in the Gulf. When the algae die and decompose, they suck up all the available oxygen in that part of the Gulf.

Most of the measures to reduce the dead zone’s size rely on voluntary conservation practices by farmers or municipalities upriver. And a record amount of farmland for corn is opening up to fuel the nation’s hunger for ethanol.

"Without the implicit threat of, ‘Do these things by this specific time and date,’ you just don’t have any teeth," said Matt Rota, water resources program director with the Gulf Restoration Network.

The task force was in town this week to review a 285-page draft report by a team of scientists appointed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The report updates the science on causes of the dead zone, reaffirming that nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from upstream are the major contributors.

The report calls for a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus, much of which can be traced to discharges from wastewater-treatment plants. Previous assessments have called for only nitrogen reductions.

To target discharges from industrial sources such as treatment plants, the report also calls on states to set strict standards and improve the way they monitor those releases. Echoing many researchers’ concerns over the years, the report also points out that any voluntary conservation programs are unlikely to work without economic incentives.

Without specific federal financing, dead zone reduction relies on existing conservation programs within the Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers. 

"I believe the issue is resource-starved, not attitude-starved," said Dean Lemke, who represented Iowa on the task force as chief of the water resource bureau at the state’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. "I think this report validates that we are learning a lot more about these systems."

Gary Mast, the deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment at USDA, said programs in his agency are working, despite the skepticism from many environmental groups about the pace of addressing the dead zone.

"We’re not sitting in a vacuum at USDA; we’re really working to solve these problems," he said, pointing to about 3.7 million acres of farmland that have gone into conservation programs from 2000 to 2006. "Economics talks when it comes to what the farmer is going to put in his field, and economics talks when it comes to conservation practices."

The task force had several suggestions and questions for the EPA-appointed scientists, who will be in New Orleans reviewing the report through Friday. Among them were questions about how realistic the 2015 goal would be, based on the suggested nutrient reductions, and how to give farmers appropriate incentives to reduce fertilizer runoff.

Tuesday’s meeting was just one step in a long process to revise the original 2001 plan. The EPA science board will draft a final report over the next few months that the task force will use to set new policies by early next year.

The task force is hoping that new measures in this year’s Farm Bill, being debated in Congress, will offer additional programs.

Several task force members emphasized the importance of not letting uncertainties in science get in the way of on-the-ground progress.

"The hobgoblin of progress is uncertainty," said Len Bahr, a Louisiana representative on the task force and a science adviser in Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s Office of Coastal Activities. "It’s so easy to use science to delay action."