Gulf dead zone plan stagnates

By Chris Kirkham
The Times-Picayune; February 28, 2008

Seven years after approving a pact meant to reduce a large, lifeless band of
ocean water that forms off Louisiana’s coast every summer, representatives
from a slew of state and federal agencies will reconvene in Chicago today
amid sobering results.
The perennial "dead zone" in the Gulf is still growing, reaching a size of
nearly 8,000 square miles last summer, an area the size of New Jersey and
one of the largest such disturbances ever recorded.
The federal-state task force assembled to tackle the problem will revise its
2001 plan this week, but many researchers say retreating from original
timelines leaves little chance of reducing the size of the oxygen-depleted
section of the Gulf by a 2015 deadline.
And as delays continue, new research points to the possibility of a long-term
ecological shift in the Gulf if the dead zone persists.
"The implication is that the more you put this off, the harder it will be in the
future," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center
for Environmental Science, who has studied dead zones in the Gulf and the
Chesapeake Bay since the 1980s. "They’re on a fast march nowhere.
In many ways this plan is weaker than the original action plan."
The origins of the dead zone lie hundreds of miles up the Mississippi River,
where fertilizer runoff and wastewater from farms and towns funnel billions
of pounds of excess nutrients into the river, and eventually the Gulf. The
nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, combine with sunlight and
summer heat to fuel explosive algae blooms that choke off the oxygen supply
vital for marine life.
The disturbance puts a huge swath of the Gulf — stretching from the mouth
of the Mississippi River to the Texas border — essentially off-limits to the
commercial and recreational fishing industries during the summer.
Lack of coordination
Pinpointing and halting the source of the problem is a vast undertaking.
Tributaries and streams leading into the Mississippi drain more than 40
percent of the continental United States.
No single agency is responsible for addressing the problem, and there is no
federal money targeted to addressing the dead zone. So a broad array of
overlapping state and federal agencies — from Minnesota to Louisiana, from
the Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Department of Agriculture –
– are left to address bits of the problem.
It’s that lack of coordination that has led to significant criticism of the dead
zone task force by many in the scientific community.
"Most of our ‘cleanup’ programs have not met their stated goals and timelines
because the management is diffuse and it is easy to pass the buck," wrote
John Kraeuter, a marine sciences professor at Rutgers University, in
commenting on the action plan revision. "We know the scientific basics of
what has to be done, but the management ‘science’ has not kept pace. We are
trying to manage ecology with management schemes that were not set up to
do so. Put somebody in charge."
It may be too late
The new plan still sticks to the 2001 goal of reducing the dead zone to a
quarter of last summer’s size by 2015, but it acknowledges that it might
already be too late.
The plan calls for states along the Mississippi River, particularly major
agricultural producers such as Iowa and Illinois, to come up with ways to
reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that are trickling into the
Mississippi. The 2001 plan called on states to take a similar initiative within
a year, but the goal was never met.
The revised action plan calls on states to come up with strategies "as soon as
possible, but no later than 2013" — two years before the 2015 deadline.
A comprehensive report last year by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, an
assembly of handpicked experts, called for 40 percent to 45 percent
reductions in the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus fed into the river. But
those targets didn’t make it into the new action plan.
There are a number of lofty goals in the new plan, including a call for federal
agencies to identify effective agricultural conservation programs, such as
installing buffers between farmland and streams or retiring farmland into
wetlands that can soak up fertilizer nutrients. The plan calls on the USDA to
collect more data on which programs are the most effective in reducing
Many farmers upstream are taking advantage of conservation incentives,
with nearly 4 million acres of farmland taken out of production between
2000 and 2006, according to USDA, and 18.3 million more acres under
nutrient management plans. But the majority of such programs are
voluntary, and the boom in agricultural production for ethanol and other
biofuels is bringing more farmland into operation.
More than 15 million new acres of farmland were devoted to corn last year
than in 2006, and a recent report by the National Research Council finds that
corn production requires far more fertilizers and pesticides than other
biofuel crops, such as soybeans or switchgrass.
‘It’s words, words, words’
In the absence of hard rules, many are skeptical that any changes will occur.
"It’s words, words, words," said Len Bahr, Louisiana’s representative on the
dead zone task force and a researcher in the Governor’s Office of Coastal
Activities. "I don’t see any sense of urgency that this is critical to us. We’re
under the gun, and that is not reflected in these documents."
Research from Louisiana State University last year shows the highest level of
nitrogen in the river recorded in the past 15 years and points to the
persistence of nutrients in the river system and in the Gulf as having a
compounded effect each year.
"Each year without reducing the nutrient loading rates means that it will take
longer to realize the Action Plan goal," LSU professor Gene Turner wrote in a
paper published this year.
Though the dead zone task force is an unprecedented collection of
governmental agencies without any real financing, some members
nonetheless feel they are obliged to accomplish more.
"In my opinion, the action plan should cause someone to do something
different, and therefore significantly reduce nutrient loads," said Rob
Magnien, a representative on the task force with the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. "I think the task force still has work to do to
pass this test."
Chris Kirkham can be reached at or (504)