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Most Mississippi River Basin States Have Completed Plans to Control Nutrient Pollution

Thursday, May 22, 2014

By Amena H. Saiyid  

May 21 — Ten of the 12 states participating in a federal-state task force to tackle hypoxia in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico have submitted either draft or final plans to reduce nutrient runoff into the basin, according to the task force co-chairman.

Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin have submitted plans, while Arkansas and Tennessee are expected to submit their plans by the end of the year, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said May 21 at the spring meeting in Arkansas of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force.

Northey, who co-chairs the task force, was reporting on the progress the 12 states have made in writing nutrient reduction strategies to meet the goals set out in the task force's 2008 action plan.

“All these strategies are done with an idea of implementation,” Northey said. “This is not a box that you check and walk away.”

The hypoxia task force, established in 1997 to redress hypoxia—low oxygen conditions caused by excessive algae blooms—in the Gulf of Mexico, includes five federal agencies, 12 states and Native American tribes in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River basin.

The federal members are the Environmental Protection Agency, which co-chairs the task force, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Nutrient pollution is largely caused by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture and other human activities into the Mississippi River basin, resulting in oxygen-depleted or hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2013, this zone measured 5,800 square miles, which the researchers said spanned a size larger than the state of Connecticut.

Despite the progress made by states in writing plans to reduce nutrient pollution, Northey said, challenges still remain in addressing the problem.

“How do we implement, how do we fund, how do we measure, can we even measure activity? Do we even have the dollars to measure activity?” said Northey, saying the biggest challenge facing the states is in gathering data on how nitrogen is being used in agriculture and how it is being dissipated into the soil.

The key, Northey said, is to gather data already generated into a form that will enable the states and federal government to determine “whether we are making progress.”

Also at the meeting was Nancy Stoner, acting assistant EPA administrator for water, who emphasized the importance of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, businesses and universities in helping the states reduce nutrient runoff.

Partnerships with Land Grant Universities

“The federal government and the states can't do it alone,” Stoner emphasized, as the EPA announced that the task force has reached an agreement with 12 land grant universities in the Mississippi River Basin to support state-level strategies and actions to curb water pollution.

The universities involved in the partnership are: Iowa State University, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, University of Arkansas, University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, University of Tennessee and University of Wisconsin. According to the task force, these universities already are conducting research on issues such as soil conservation, water quality and how nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus travel in water bodies.

Northey said the partnership with the land grant universities is critical because such institutions are repositories of information on local soil, climate conditions and farmers.

John Lawrence, associate dean of the Iowa State University economics department, told the task force that land grant universities are trusted by farmers, who tend to be skeptical of federal and state governments.

Following Lawrence at the meeting was Clifford Snyder, nitrogen program director at the International Plant Nutrition Institute, who told the task force that farmers don't want to overuse nitrogen fertilizers on their lands. He said the partnership with the land grant universities would be a good way to get scientific recommendations out to farmers.

Snyder said no single conservation measure can efficiently reduce nitrogen runoff or increase nitrogen uptake by crops. He said conservation practices adopted by farmers have to be site- and state-specific because of the variability in crops, soil and climate.

Despite 50 years of research, Snyder said, there is still no single approach to accurately predict the soil's uptake of nitrogen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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