States want 20 more years to meet Gulf dead-zone goals

By Donelle Eller – DeMoines Register
February 12, 2015

(Photo: The Register)

A task force representing Iowa and 11 other states said Thursday it needs another 20 years to reduce the size of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico by two-thirds.

The Hypoxic Task Force sought to reduce the Gulf dead zone’s size from 6,000 square miles to 2,000 by 2015. It’s now about the size of Connecticut.

The task force Thursday set an interim goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorous loads in the Gulf by 20 percent by 2025, “in order to track progress and spur action.” The task force’s two-decade goal is to reduce nutrient loads by 45 percent.

Some Iowa environmental groups said Thursday’s announcement from the Hypoxic Task Force is evidence the approach isn’t working.

“The actions that the states have taken to date have not resulted in any meaningful impact on nutrient pollution in the Gulf,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines. “It’s not working for the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s not working for Iowa waters.”

All of the states have adopted voluntary plans to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous entering waterways and leaving the state and contributing to the Gulf dead zone.

Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture and the task force’s co-chairman, said the original goal was set in the late 1990s, when the task force envisioned significant federal investment in the initiative.

“The number that was thrown around was $1 billion of federal money to help states address issues,” Northey said. “We had 9/11, a recession and lots of other things. Until recently, there was no money that was essentially focused on nutrient reduction.”

Iowa seeks to reduce total nitrogen and phosphorous loads by 45 percent, but the plan has come under sharp criticism because the state has no deadline goals.

Nutrients that degrade water quality come from both urban and rural sources. A large portion of the state’s strategy has focused on encouraging Iowa farmers to adopt conservation practices such as cover crops and buffer strips that can help reduce the loss of nitrogen and phosphorous.

“There is no excuse for extending the time,” said Wally Taylor, an attorney for the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter. “When the alleged nutrient reduction strategy is completely voluntary, with no measurable outcomes or timetable, and when the governor vetoes funding for it, it is bound to fail.

“The strategy was a farce from the beginning,” he said. “EPA should bring down the hammer.”

Iowa’s strategy says so-called nutrients from nonpoint sources, such as farming, account for a large portion of nutrient loads.

The issue came to a head last month when Des Moines Water Works notified drainage districts in three rural Iowa counties — Calhoun, Buena Vista and Sac — that it planned to sue them.

The utility claims the drainage districts, and indirectly crop and livestock producers in the area, are contributing to high nitrates in the Raccoon River watershed that have forced the agency to use expensive equipment to filter the water. The utility’s notice to sue says nitrogen levels in one drainage district feeding the Raccoon River have been nearly four times higher than the amount the federal government says is safe for drinking water.

Susan Heathcote, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council, said she’s hopeful Iowa and other states will align their plans to reflect the task force’s goals.

That step would require some big changes across the state, she said. “Just having a goal and having a timeline isn’t going to make it so. A lot of work needs to be done,” Heathcote said. “But if we have a time frame, we can then begin to measure in five, 10, 15, 20 years the progress that’s being made.”

Northey said the task force wants to see states take action to meet its new goals. But no “formula has been set that says your reduction must be X and your reduction must be Y, and if you don’t get half of that 20 percent reduction done … the whole approach is a failure.”

Some states move faster toward the goals, some slower, Northey said.