Report sounds alarm on Gulf of Mexico dead zone

By Chris Kirkham
December 22, 2008; The Times-Picayune

After years of piecemeal efforts to reduce Mississippi River pollution that leads to the Gulf of Mexico’s annual "dead zone" disturbance, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Agriculture Department need to take quick action in pinpointing and reducing the source of the problem, says a new report from the National Research Council.
Agricultural practices in the nation’s Heartland are a major contributor to the dead zone problem, and the report points out that EPA and USDA have not effectively coordinated upstream pollution-control measures to tackle the problem: a lifeless, oxygen-depleted swath of Gulf waters nearly the size of New Jersey.
Even with a more robust program to reduce river pollution, the report notes that it could take decades to reverse the damage.
"The longer that decisive actions to address this problem are delayed, the longer it will take until effective approaches are implemented, " the report states. "Given that it will require years, if not decades, to see downstream responses to nutrient control actions, it is important to begin quickly and move forward decisively."
Both agencies must establish a water quality center for the entire river basin, which would examine the effectiveness of conservation programs along waterways that carry excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the river and, eventually, the Gulf.
Fertilizer runoff and wastewater discharges from 41 percent of the continental United States flow into the Mississippi River, carrying tons of excess nutrients that eventually flow into the Gulf. When mixed with sunlight, those nutrients spark algae blooms that later die and suck up oxygen vital for marine life.
Despite a 2001 pact to reduce the dead zone among federal agencies and basin states, it has continued to grow.
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 EPA to USDA — are left to address bits of the problem. EPA has explicit authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate discharges from pipes or industrial polluters, but controlling diffuse forms of pollution such as runoff from farms is more difficult.
Most of that pollution, which by some estimates contributes 90 percent of the nutrients in the Gulf, is addressed through voluntary USDA conservation programs.
EPA requested the National Research Council report to get suggestions on how to use existing agriculture conservation programs and financing in the most efficient way. The report suggests that EPA and USDA form 40 pilot conservation projects in tributaries with documented nutrient overloads to gauge which methods achieve the best results.
"This is obviously a very complex and challenging problem, maybe as complex as any EPA has tried to face, because of the scale of it, " said David Moreau, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who chaired the report’s research committee. "The weakness in the program is that there is no well-designed monitoring program to evaluate whether or not the management practices that are being put in place are achieving the goals that have been set."
The report also suggests that EPA and USDA work with states to set overall caps on nutrient limits in waterways that lead to the Mississippi River. With an overall cap, the agencies could break down which states and waterways are responsible for making the greatest reductions in pollution.
Chris Kirkham can be reached at or 504.826.3321.