Minn. taking lead to reduce Gulf dead zone

By Amy Wold, The Advocate
26 September 2013

 Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- A river tug pushes a load of barges upriver past Scott's Bluff on the Southern University campus Wednesday.

For more than a decade, organizations and scientists working toward reducing the size of the annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico have shared a similar complaint: The dead zone remains largely unchanged and states, left to their own devices, have done little to make significant improvements.

That’s why news out of the state/federal Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force in Minneapolis Tuesday was greeted as good news.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s assistant commissioner, Rebecca Flood, presented the state’s proposed nutrient-reduction plan with a target 35 percent reduction in phosphorus and 20 percent reduction in nitrogen getting into waterways by 2025.

“If other states would do this we’d be in a much better situation,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.

Agreeing is Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and the lead on the annual cruises to measure the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

“Minnesota is way ahead of the other states in terms of doing things,” she said. “It certainly is a positive step.”

Part of that positive step is that Minnesota has produced a plan to reduce nutrients that get into the Mississippi River while many other states, including Louisiana, have named their efforts “nutrient management” plans which isn’t the same as reduction, Rabalais said.

These nutrients lead to the dead zone formation in the Gulf of Mexico by feeding small organisms that use up oxygen as they die and fall to the sea floor.

Without winds or storms to help mix oxygen-rich water on surface with the low-oxygen water on the bottom, these low-oxygen conditions can build to a point that the water no longer can sustain marine life.

In Louisiana, Rabalais said, the nutrient task force is looking at planned diversions of river water and sediment into coastal marshes as a tool for reducing the dead zone.

Marshes can take up nutrients carried in river water, but there is research that shows too much nutrients into certain marshes can cause more damage than benefit.

Other researchers maintain that nutrients don’t do harm, but instead help marsh grow healthier.

“Diversions are not a solution,” Rabalais said.

At the same time, funding continues to be cut in the hypoxia research.

“Our budget for next year has been cut again,” Rabalais said.

Although annual cruises to measure the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico have been going on since 1985, Rabalais said her budget doesn’t include enough money now to continue that work next year.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.

There are individual projects to reduce nutrients from getting into the Gulf of Mexico and there are projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work on soil conservation and to reduce nitrogen loss from agricultural lands, however, there isn’t a widespread effort.

Some researchers say the state/federal action plans don’t have enforcement authority and have little funding to do significant work in the Mississippi River basin to reach the goal of having the dead zone shrink to 1,900 square miles.

This year, the low-oxygen dead zone off the coast of Louisiana was measured at 5,840 square miles.

Even the Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force stated in a report this year that, “reducing the size of the hypoxic zone to 5,000 square kilometers (or 2,000 square miles) remains a reasonable goal in an adaptive management context; however, it may not be possible to achieve this goal by 2015.”

Matt Rota, senior policy director with the Gulf Restoration Network, said although quite a few states are developing nutrient plans, Minnesota is one of the first to put numerical goals and deadlines in their plan.

The plan won’t be publicly released for another week, so Rota said he hasn’t had a chance to study it.

This, too, will be a plan that focuses on voluntary efforts, which is something that the national task force has been working to change for more than a decade, Rota said.

“That obviously hasn’t worked,” he said. “There needs to be some kind of accountability.”

The Gulf Restoration Network was one of several environmental groups that petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 to set nutrient criteria for the Mississippi River.

A decision by a district judge last week in New Orleans sent the issue back to EPA and gave the agency six months to decide whether criteria should be set to limit nutrients in rivers.

In the meantime, Louisiana is putting together a nutrient management plan, but Rota said he’s been disappointed by the effort so far.

“What it seems like they’re doing is compiling efforts that are already going on and calling it a plan,” Rota said.

The nutrient management plan is being developed through cooperation of four state agencies: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources.

Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said the plan won’t include specific numeric goals or deadlines for improvement, but there will be monitoring done to measure improvements that are made.

The plan will look at voluntary actions farmers, business, industry and private citizens can take to reduce nutrient runoff into waterways.

A lot of work has already been done by agriculture in reducing nutrient runoff, Strain said, and the plan will include emphasis on continuing that work.

“Working with farmers to show it’s not just good for the environment, but it’s also good for your bottom line,” Strain said.

Water and fertilizer are expensive, and anything that can be done to conserve them on the field is better for the farmer.

In addition, the department is working with industry to agree to pay top dollar for produce that comes from farms that follow certain conservation practices, he said, which gives farmers another incentive to participate.

“As a state, we’ve never focused on the issue as much as we are now,” Strain said.

A final draft of Louisiana’s nutrient management study is expected to be released by the end of the year.