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Northey comments on positive Hypoxia Task Force report

Posted Sept. 24, 2013

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey today commented on a report from the Hypoxia Task Force that highlights the progress made in the past five years to address nitrogen and phosphorous loads entering the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River.

Northey co-chairs the task force that consists of representatives from five federal and 12 state agencies and is working to address the environmental concerns associated with the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia zone.

The report notes progress in targeting funds where they’re most needed, increasing agricultural conservation practices, developing state nutrient reduction strategies and improving science and monitoring of water quality in the Mississippi River Basin.

“This report does a good job showing the significant progress that has been made and the work that still needs to be done. Iowa continues to be a leader in the adoption of voluntary, science-based practices that address nitrogen and phosphorus loading contributing to the hypoxic zone,” Northey said. “Through the newly created Iowa Water Quality Initiative, we will have nearly 1,100 Iowa farmers putting their own money toward trying new practices this fall aimed at protecting water quality here in Iowa and downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.”

The report recommends that the task force work to accelerate implementation of nutrient reduction activities and identify ways to measure progress in reducing pollution at a variety of scales — from small streams to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The task force also has released a new federal strategy focused primarily on providing support to states as they develop and implement nutrient reduction strategies.

“Achieving significant water quality improvements in water bodies as large as the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico takes time, and the increasing impacts of climate change such as more frequent extreme weather events pose additional challenges,” said Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and co-chair of the task force. “The progress we’ve made across the board during the past five years provides an excellent foundation and we will work to accelerate our progress over the next five years.”

As part of an assessment of the Hypoxia Task Force’s progress in implementing its 2008 Action Plan, the report’s findings include:

States are making progress in nutrient reduction strategies: The Task Force continues to focus on drafting and implementing state nutrient reduction strategies. Five states – Mississippi, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana and Ohio – have finalized or released drafts of nutrient reduction strategies, and the remaining seven states expect to have at least draft strategies completed by late 2013 or early 2014.

Assistance for conservation practices is strong: The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to provide strong assistance for conservation practices through a variety of actions, including the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). The MRBI uses key conservation practices, such as nutrient management, conservation crop rotation, cover crops and residue and tillage management to address critical water quality concerns of the region. By the end of fiscal year 2013, the MRBI will have targeted over $341 million in assistance across 123 projects and 640 small watersheds.

Science and monitoring continues to improve: In the past few years, the task force has improved the scientific tools and efforts used in the Mississippi River Basin, including establishing a long-term water quality monitoring network, conducting basin-wide assessments and using models to increase the understanding of nutrient loadings and coordinating hypoxic zone research. This allows for more precise targeting of efforts to reduce nutrient pollution and measurement of results from those activities.

Goal for reducing hypoxic zone in Gulf of Mexico remains reasonable: Despite incremental improvements and significant investments to reduce nutrient pollution, the goal of reducing the size of the hypoxic zone to 5,000 square kilometers is unlikely to be achieved in 2015. The average size of the dead zone for the past five years was 14,807 square kilometers. However, the science shows the goal remains reasonable.

Under the federal strategy, in the coming years agencies will:

• Provide more scientific and technical assistance, such as monitoring and modeling efforts to help demonstrate progress locally, basin-wide and in the Gulf, as well as additional research to better target conservation practices on the ground.
• Work on economic analyses of conservation practices to help producers identify the conservation practices that provide the most economic and environmental benefits.
• Support regulatory activities that provide reductions in nutrient runoff.
• Use innovation and leveraging to offer financial and technical assistance.
• Explore ways to expand market-based approaches.

The Louisiana Universities’ Marine Consortium (LUMCON) reported July 28 that its 2013 survey of the so-called “Dead Zone” in the Gulf shows that the area was smaller than expected this year. The 2013 area of low oxygen measured 5,800 square miles in this summer’s mapping expedition, according to a LUMCON release. The researches predicted the area to be 7,300 to 8,600 square miles based on the May nitrogen load from the Mississippi River.

The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico forms every summer and is a result of excess nutrients from the Mississippi River and seasonal stratification (layering) of waters in the Gulf. The Hypoxia Task Force (also referred to as the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force) was established in the fall of 1997 to understand the causes and effects of eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico; coordinate activities to reduce the size, severity, and duration; and lessen the effects of hypoxia.

Members of the Hypoxia Task Force are the Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Department of 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.

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