USDA Eyeing Targeted Program To Reduce Gulf Of Mexico ‘Dead Zone’

By Daily News
Friday, August 21, 2009,

The Agriculture Department (USDA) is planning to target funds to encourage farmers in states bordering the Mississippi River to use best management practices to reduce nutrient runoff contributing to the Gulf of Mexico’s so-called dead zone, according to environmentalist sources who track USDA’s environmental programs.

USDA officials recently met with representatives from environmental and other groups to discuss the plan, known as the EQIP Hypoxia Initiative, but environmentalist sources say few details are known of how the program would work. USDA has not officially launched the initiative.

USDA’s focus on targeting funds in its voluntary Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) follows a May report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that called on USDA to focus a majority of EQIP dollars to fund watershed-based cleanup projects in the Mississippi River Basin. But environmentalist sources say it is unclear whether USDA’s initiative will go as far as activists want.

EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals, according to USDA. EQIP offers financial and technical help to assist eligible participants install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land. EQIP’s priorities include restoring impaired water quality, conserving groundwater and surface water resources, improving air quality, reducing soil erosion and sedimentation, and improving or creating wildlife habitat for at-risk species.

The new initiative would target 12 states — 10 that directly abut the Mississippi River plus Indiana and Ohio, sources say. But it would not include any new EQIP funds, and it is unclear whether USDA will mandate or just encourage states to devote a portion of their EQIP funds to projects in targeted watersheds, one environmentalist says.

Watersheds “contributing high nutrient loads to the Gulf of Mexico” would be identified at a scale no larger than the sub-basin level, also known as eight-digit watersheds, in reference to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) method for identifying watersheds by a unique hydrologic unit code, according to a USDA summary of the initiative. “Those are rather big” areas, the environmentalist source says, explaining that it would be easier to target best management practices at the watershed or subwatershed levels, also known as 10-digit or 12-digit watersheds.

Key watersheds would be identified using USGS’ SPARROW model, which empirically estimates the origin and fate of contaminants in river networks and quantifies uncertainties in model predictions, along with state data to help confirm the model predictions, sources say.

Last year, state concerns over outdated USGS data on nutrient loading in the Mississippi River Basin delayed completion of an EPA-led task force’s report on how to reduce the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone.

The USDA summary says core and supporting conservation practices will be combined in a systems approach to most effectively ensure appropriate nutrient inputs, control erosion, and trap sediment and nutrients before entering water bodies. And funds will be targeted toward highest priority needs and for the most effective or efficient system of conservation practices, the summary says.

“It’s pretty promising,” the environmentalist source says of the initiative, adding that activists are “encouraged” that USDA is using the word hypoxia in the plan and is targeting funds to the issue. But at the same time, environmentalists are concerned that the new plan may not go as far as needed to reduce nutrient runoff, the source says.

In its May report, Seizing A Watershed Moment: Making EQIP Work for Water Quality in 10 Mississippi River Border States, EWG said EQIP has not been deployed as effectively as it could be in the 10 states. “The methods used to decide how to spend EQIP dollars within a state and which farmers will get those dollars are more likely to result in diffuse and fragmented efforts to reduce pollution from farms, rather than the focused and coordinated effort needed to clean up the Mississippi River and its tributaries.”

EWG recommended that 60 percent of EQIP dollars go to watershed-based cleanup projects that encourage multiple farmers within a watershed to reduce pollution to a specific lake, stream, or tributary to the Mississippi River.

Additionally, EWG says USDA needs to set clear and specific goals for how much pollution needs to be reduced, determine which waterbodies are priorities for improvement and set a timetable to achieve those goals. Then USDA should encourage participation in EQIP from farmers who can do the most to contribute to watershed-based cleanup projects or solve high priority problems.

EQIP can play an important role in reducing nutrients in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, the EWG report says.

“However, if EQIP is not much more effectively targeted and if Congress and the Administration fail to fully fund the program, there is no hope for improving either local water quality or the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” the report says. EQIP funding has fallen short of authorized levels in the Farm Bill every year since 2002, and President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget request proposes funding EQIP at a level $250 million lower than what was authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill.

“Given this history, it is becoming clear that voluntary programs alone will not clean up local streams, rivers, and lakes or heal the Gulf of Mexico,” EWG says. “New approaches including strengthening and expanding the Conservation Compliance provisions of the farm bill, and regulatory action at the state or federal level will be needed to make real progress on these long-standing pollution problems.”

Agriculture’s contribution to the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone — and whether there should be targeted efforts to limit nutrients from agriculture — is controversial.

A December 2007 EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) report on Gulf hypoxia said the upper Mississippi and Ohio-Tennessee River subbasins currently contribute nearly all the spring nitrogen flux to the Gulf. “These subbasins represent the tile-drained, corn-soybean landscape of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio and illustrate that corn-soybean agriculture with tile drainage leaks considerable

[nitrogen] under the current management system,” the report said.

And a 2008 USGS report found that farm sediment, fertilizer runoff and livestock waste are the source of over 70 percent of the pollution causing the Gulf’s hypoxic zone.

SAB said in its 2007 report that in order to achieve nitrogen and phosphorus “reductions from agricultural sources of the magnitude needed to affect hypoxia, economic incentives are needed to induce adequate adoption of conservation practices. These incentives can take many forms: conservation payments, taxes, and/or restructuring of existing farm subsidy and compliance requirements.”

But earlier this year, the National Corn Growers Association issued a white paper saying that the “vast dead zones” in the Gulf attributed to hypoxia “may be overstated.” The white paper also says “there is no clear evidence of a relationship between nitrogen and the size of the seasonal hypoxic zone. In recent years, as corn production has become more efficient and yields have increased, the nitrogen removed from corn fields in the grain may equal or exceed the amount of nitrogen applied in the fertilizer.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee passed out of committee Aug. 5 a bill intended to fund National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research programs on algal blooms and hypoxia. The bill, S. 952, is sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), along with 13 co-sponsors, including key members of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee — Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), who heads the committee’s water panel.

The bill also reauthorizes the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, which includes EPA, USGS and several states in an effort to manage Gulf of Mexico hypoxia caused by nutrient pollution.