USDA program seeks to cut runoff, Gulf dead zone

By Amy Wold, Advocate staff writer
8 November 2011

Louisiana may not add a lot of nutrients to the annual low-oxygen dead zone that forms in the Gulf of Mexico every year, but the state can be part of the solution.

A program started last year through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is working in 43 watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin to help reduce and contain nutrients, primarily contained in agricultural runoff, before they can get into the river and the Gulf of Mexico.

"It’s the first targeted funding we’ve had to try to help (with the low-oxygen issue)," Doug Daigle, chairman of the Lower Mississippi River Sub-basin Committee on Hypoxia, told the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on Oct. 19.

Although the federal/state Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force has released two action plans calling for a reduction of nutrients in — 2001 and 2008 — little funding has been available to take action.

 However, the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative is starting its third of five years of funding through $320 million set aside from the farm bill by USDA. The money is spent through existing agricultural conservation programs, but is focused on 43 specific watersheds in 13 participating states.

The goal of the initiative is to improve water quality in the Mississippi River by reducing or cleaning runoff from agricultural fields.

States included in the initiative include Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Within those states, 43 smaller watersheds have been identified where the set-aside money will be spent.

In each watershed, NRCS representatives hold meetings with farmers to explain the program and what help is available, said Scott Edwards, state resource conservationist with NRCS in Louisiana.

Farmers then can go to the NRCS local offices and get help with things like building wetland buffers, which help strain out nutrients and sediment, or with different tilling techniques that help keep more ground cover in place in order to reduce runoff.

"Stopping sediment loss is beneficial to them," Edwards said. "It protects their resources." Farmers pay for costs up front for any changes they decide to make, but the programs help share and reimburse part of the cost, he said.

Nutrients that come from crop fertilizer, agriculture operations and other sources flow down the river and into the Gulf of Mexico. During the summer, these nutrients feed microscopic organisms, which die and fall to the bottom, where they use up the oxygen. Upper layers of fresh water from the Mississippi River don’t mix with the deeper, saltier layers of water, and that forms a dead zone — a layer of water where oxygen is too low to support marine life.

This summer, the dead zone measured 6,765 square miles, according to research by scientists at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Last year, this area was 7,722 square miles. The size fluctuates from year to year, depending on weather conditions, passage of tropical storms and how much fresh water flows down the Mississippi River.

Other goals of the watershed initiative project are to restore and enhance wildlife habitat and to maintain agricultural productivity.

In Louisiana, there were three projects in the first year of the initiative with a fourth added last year as a joint project with Arkansas, Edwards said.

 Three of the projects are in north Louisiana, with one located in southwest Louisiana and they receive about $500,000 a year from the initiative, Edwards said.

"These focus areas have a special allocation of money, but we offer these services all over the state," Edwards said.