With Water in Mind

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Published September 18, 2006

The idea that agriculture has become a major source of pollution in the Mississippi River will startle many Midwesterners. But it's no surprise to the government's top environmental regulators. The scandal is that they have done so little about it, when they have had voluminous research and practical solutions at their fingertips for nearly a decade.

In 1997 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) convened a series of scientific meetings and formed the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, with representatives from academia and states bordering the river. It commissioned a set of exhaustive studies on nutrients and hypoxia, written by prominent scholars and overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 2001, the EPA issued its hypoxia Action Plan. The document concluded that "water quality throughout the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers Basin has been degraded by excess nutrients" and proposed a detailed, 11-step timetable to reduce Gulf hypoxia.

Today, apart from more meetings and more research, it's hard to find the action in the action plan. By spring 2002, for example, the states were supposed to expand water monitoring and provide "high resolution" techniques to reduce nutrient runoff. Yet as of last week, only two of the original nine states had even adopted numeric targets to measure nutrients. By 2015, the plan pledged to shrink the Gulf hypoxia zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers - or roughly half its 1990s size. This summer the hypoxic zone was as big as it was in 1995, more than 12,000 square kilometers.

"Up and down the river, there's really been no improvement in water quality," says Ken Cook, director of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.

"It's discouraging to keep going out on the Gulf and finding so much hypoxia," says Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, who has been mapping Gulf hypoxia since 1985.

Ben Grumbles, EPA's assistant administrator for water, says the agency hasn't forgotten about hypoxia, but wants to pursue strategies that are "premised on sound science and cooperative action.'' That's fine - but the 2001 Action Plan was premised on sound science and cooperative actions, yet today it is far behind schedule.

To be fair, EPA isn't the only agency, or even the lead agency, that can change farming and farm policy to clean up the nation's great waterways. But agriculture won't change unless the nation's top environmental regulators insist on it.

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