Watershed Wednesday: Council Speaks Up for Mississippi River at Annual Gulf Hypoxia Task Force Meeting

posted on Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ann Robinson, Gulf Hypoxia Task Force Meeting
Agricultural Policy Specialist Ann Robinson pauses for a picture after delivering remarks at the recent annual Mississippir River/Gulf Hypoxia Task Force Meeting.

When the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force met in St. Louis April 25-26, the Iowa Environmental Council was there to advocate for clean water interests in Iowa and beyond. Agricultural Specialist Ann Robinson offered public comments at the Spring Public Meeting session on behalf of Council members and our partners in the Mississippi River Collaborative, a coalition working to improve the health and sustainability of the Mississippi River.

The Task Force represents five federal agencies, 12 states and Native American tribes from Minnesota down through Louisiana. The Task Force has been working for almost 20 years to coordinate efforts to reduce, mitigate and control hypoxia (a lack of oxygen in the water due to excessive nitrate pollution that can kill fish and marine life) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution delivered to the Gulf via the Mississippi River/Atchafalaya River Basin. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey co-chairs the Task Force, along with Ellen Gilinsky, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

In August 2015, the so-called “Dead Zone” measured 6,474 square miles, approximately the area of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, an increase from the 5,052 square miles measured the previous year.

In 2008, the Task Force authored an action plan that called upon Mississippi River Basin states to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico by 45% to shrink the areal extent of the hypoxic zone to an average of less than 5,000 square kilometers by 2015.

 In February 2015, the Task Force announced that it would extend the timeline for this goal by 20 years, from 2015 to 2035.

Estimated as the second largest contributor of nitrogen and third of phosphorus to the Gulf, research shows that Iowa is a hot spot for this type of pollution, which comes primarily from agriculture, industries and municipal wastewater.  

During the 2016 meeting’s public comment period, the Council expressed concern that instead of shrinking, the Dead Zone in the Gulf is getting larger. At the same time, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution also continue to threaten drinking water supplies throughout the basin and cause toxic algae blooms that force beach closures on lakes and waterways.

Incomplete implementation of state nutrient reduction strategies was a main focus of the Council’s comments. Though most states, including Iowa, have developed a strategy to reduce nutrients, none fully comply with all of the recommended elements outlined by EPA in their 2008 memo “Recommended Elements of a State Framework for Managing Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution.” 

Deficiencies shared by many states’ strategies include:

  • Numeric nutrient criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus have not been developed;
  • Nutrient load reductions for targeted watersheds have not been identified;
  • Accountability and verification measures have not been established; and
  • Reasonable assurance that agricultural pollution reductions will be achieved has not been demonstrated.

All are absent from Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy, as is a source of significant long-term, sustainable funding to support the effort.

“It probably goes without saying that we and the public are frustrated that pollution issues from nitrogen and phosphorus in the Basin seem to be getting worse, and paths forward, such as those outlined in the EPA memo are not being adequately addressed by this Task Force, despite its many positive activities,” said Robinson in her comments. “The groups in the Mississippi River Collaborative encourage you to move forward to put good ideas into action, and ultimately, move the needle – in the right direction.”

These are important issues in Iowa and the country, and it is important our policy voice was heard. While the Task Force meeting was well-attended, the Council and the Fertilizer Institute were the only two organizations that presented public comments.

The Mississippi River Collaborative (MRC) is a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from the 10 states bordering the Mississippi River as well as regional and national groups working on issues affecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The Collaborative harnesses the resources and expertise of its diverse organizations to reduce pollution entering the Mississippi River as well as the Gulf of Mexico. The Iowa Environmental Council’s participation in the Collaborative is funded by the McKnight Foundation, which is a primary sponsor of the MRC. 

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