Feb 18, 2015

States Develop Strategies to Reduce Nutrient Levels in Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico

The task force extended the target date for shrinking the Gulf of Mexico dead zone from 2015 to 2035

Hypoxia Task Force Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico pollution control

The 12 states of the Hypoxia Task Force have devised new strategies to speed up reduction of nutrient levels in waterways in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin. High nutrients levels are a key contributor each summer to the large area of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico known as a dead zone. Each state has outlined specific actions it will take to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin from wastewater plants, industries, agriculture and storm water runoff. 

The task force has decided to extend the target date for shrinking the dead zone from its current average size of almost 6,000 square miles to about 2,000 square miles from 2015 to 2035. Progress has been made in certain watersheds within the region, but science shows a 45% reduction is needed in the nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Gulf of Mexico. In order to track progress and spur action, the task force is also aiming at a 20% reduction in nutrient loads by 2025.  

“It’s going to take time to vastly improve water quality in very large bodies of water like the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Federal agencies and states are committing to comprehensive actions and increased resources to spur progress on the ground and in the water,” said Ellen Gilinsky, senior adviser for water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and task force co-chair.

“Each of the states within the Mississippi River Basin are best able to understand what they need to do to achieve these aggressive goals.  The Hypoxia Task Force has been supporting the states as they develop voluntary, science-based strategies that work to achieve the shared goals of our states,” said Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture and state co-chair of the task force.

High nutrient levels are one of America's costliest, most widespread, and most challenging environmental problems. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water leads to large algae growth, called algal blooms. These algal blooms can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in water, creating dead zones and harming aquatic life, and harm humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth.

Examples of actions in state nutrient reduction strategies include:

  • The Illinois Fertilizer Act ensures that a $0.75/ton assessment on all bulk fertilizer sold in Illinois is allocated to research and educational programs focused on nutrient use and water quality. 
  • Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative has four main components: outreach and education, statewide practice implementation, targeted demonstration watershed projects, and tracking and accountability.
  • Minnesota is providing $221 million in state funds to support a wide range of activities including development of watershed restoration and protection strategies, groundwater and drinking water protection, and monitoring and assessment.
  • Wisconsin is using state and Clean Water Act funding to expand the use of conservation practices in 45 agricultural watersheds and critical sites in the Mississippi River Basin.

The task force will focus on several areas in addition to the state nutrient reduction strategies, including:

  • Quantitative Measures: States and federal agencies will need to predict and measure how much nutrient levels are reduced by certain actions. So at their meeting in May 2015, members will describe how tracking mechanisms, watershed monitoring, and computer modeling will be used to quantitatively measure progress, particularly by the state nutrient reduction strategies.
  • Federal Programs: Federal agencies will work to integrate, strengthen, and quantify the nutrient load reductions from programs including, the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program, USDA Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Mississippi River Habitat Initiative and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, and EPA Water Pollution Control Program Grants and Nonpoint Source Management Program.
  • Funding: Reducing nutrient levels requires significant financial resources so Hypoxia Task Force members will identify funding needs for specific nutrient reduction actions and then better target existing resources and pursue additional funding.
  • Partnerships: The Task Force aims to expand existing and forge new partnerships with agriculture, businesses, cities and communities, non-governmental organizations, and universities.

Members of the Hypoxia Task Force are the Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Department of the Interior; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Tribes are represented by the National Tribal Water Council.

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