Gulf of Mexico dead zone cleanup target pushed back

By Bob Berwyn, Summit County Citizens Voice
February 15, 2015

States outline small voluntary steps toward new 2035 deadline

A NOAA graphic shows the impacts of nutrient loading by highlightig oxygen-starved dead zones in red. A task force hopes to shrink the dead zone significantly by 2035.

Staff Report

FRISCO — In a classic example of government double-speak, the EPA announced this week that Mississippi River Basin states want to speed the reduction of nutrients that cause a huge Gulf of Mexico dead zone, but that they’re pushing back their target date for a cleanup by 20 years.

Now, the Hypoxia Task Force wants to shrink the Gulf dead zone from its current average size of almost 6,000 square miles to about 2,000 square miles by 2035 instead of 2015.

By the end of each summer, huge amounts of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution feed vast blooms of algae that suck oxygen from the water, essentially creating an area that’s inhospitable to marine life.

“It’s going to take time to vastly improve water quality in very large bodies of water like the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico,” said Ellen Gilinsky, senior advisor for water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Task Force co-chair.

 “Federal agencies and states are committing to comprehensive actions and increased resources to spur progress on the ground and in the water,”Gilinsky said.

For now, each state has outlined a series of mainly voluntary steps to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin from wastewater plants, industries, agriculture, and stormwater runoff.

According to the EPA, there has been some progress, but research shows that, to reach their goal, the states must cut pollution by 45 percent.In order to track progress and spur action, the task force is also aiming for a 20 percent reduction in nutrient loads by 2025.

“Each of the states within the Mississippi River Basin are best able to understand what they need to do to achieve these aggressive goals,” said Iowa agriculture secretary Bill Northey, emphasizing the voluntary nature of the measures.

High nutrient levels are one of America’s costliest, most widespread, and most challenging environmental problems, according to the EPA. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water leads to large algae growth, called algal blooms. These algal blooms can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in water, creating dead zones and harming aquatic life, and harm humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth.

In a release, the EPA outlined some of the proposed cleanup actions:

  • The Illinois Fertilizer Act ensures that a $0.75/ton assessment on all bulk fertilizer sold in Illinois is allocated to research and educational programs focused on nutrient use and water quality.
  • Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative has four main components: outreach and education, statewide practice implementation, targeted demonstration watershed projects, and tracking and accountability.
  • Minnesota is providing $221 million in state funds to support a wide range of activities including development of watershed restoration and protection strategies, ground water and drinking water protection, and monitoring and assessment.
  • Wisconsin is using state and Clean Water Act funding to expand the use of conservation practices in 45 agricultural watersheds and critical sites in the Mississippi River Basin.