Plan to fight Gulf ‘dead zone’ will target agricultural polluters

By Chris Kirkham
September 26, 2009, 9:22PM, Times-Picayune

Almost a decade after states along the Mississippi River pledged to reduce pollution that leads to the perennial "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico,  the federal government has announced the first program to specifically target and reduce agricultural runoff into the river.     

Excess pollutants from farm fertilizers,  including nitrogen and phosphorus,  have been a major  —  yet elusive  —  contributor to the dead zone that forms annually in the Gulf. The large oxygen-depleted band of ocean water forms when excess nutrient pollutants pour into the Gulf from the mouth of the river.     

Summer heat and sunlight combine with those nutrients to fuel explosive algae blooms that eventually choke off the oxygen supply vital for marine life. The "dead zone" has averaged 6,000 square miles  —  the size of Connecticut  —  over the past five years,  according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.      

Scientists and policymakers have long known that runoff from farms throughout the Mississippi River basin has spurred growth of the "dead zone, " but until now no money has been set aside to specifically pinpoint the largest agricultural pollution issues.     

The new initiative announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will funnel $320 million over four years to projects in 12 Mississippi and Ohio River states,  from Louisiana north to Minnesota and east to Ohio. Instead of broad catch-all conservation programs available to farmers across the United States,  in this program USDA will identify farms along specific streams and tributaries that have been shown to contribute the highest amounts of nutrient pollution.     

"Usually if there are subsidy payments or benefits,  often everyone wants to get a piece of the action, " said Donald Boesch,  president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a leading researcher of dead zones in the Gulf and the Chesapeake Bay since the 1980s. "The fact that they’re using those science-based techniques to try to hone in where the source of the problem is and investing those resources there is exactly what scientists have been advocating for a long time."      

Boesch still stressed that states need to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to set specific pollution reduction goals in rivers and streams to have major impacts in the future.     

Some advocacy groups say the success of the program hinges on how well the USDA can dedicate its resources to achieving results.     

"It’s great that we have this initiative,  but USDA’s going to have to buckle down and make sure that the plan is actually achieving what they want it to,  meaning they’ll have to use staff time, " said Stacy James,  a water resources scientist with the Prairie Rivers Network,  a conservation group in Illinois.     

The announcement comes on the heels of several major studies by the National Research Council that have taken the USDA and the EPA to task for not coordinating pollution efforts in the river. One 2007 report said the EPA had not been using its full authority under the Clean Water Act to work with states to curb agricultural pollution,  which is more difficult to regulate than industrial discharges such as wastewater treatment plants.     

Last month,  the EPA’s Office of Inspector General released a report calling for the agency to adopt enforceable limits on nutrient pollution into the Gulf,  noting that the agency has been relying on states to do it on their own "without any meaningful monitoring or control."     

Sara Hopper,  agricultural policy director for Environmental Defense Fund,  said that agricultural subsidies,  not strict regulations,  are most likely to play a major part in curbing the causes of the dead zone.     

"With the regulatory approach alone,  it can be challenging to get there for a variety of reasons,  financial and political, " Hopper said. "What’s really needed here are approaches that reward higher and higher levels of environmental stewardship by farmers. The use of incentives is going to have to be a critical part of the solution."  

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<em>Chris Kirkham can be reached at or 504.826.3321.