Federal and state task force agree to reduce Gulf of Mexico dead zone

The EPA and nine other federal agencies, nine states and two tribes have developed an action plan to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico 'dead zone.'

Jan. 18, 2001—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with nine other federal agencies, nine states along the Mississippi River, and two tribes have developed an action plan to reduce the size of the "dead zone," a large, oxygen-starved area of the Gulf of Mexico which threatens the nation's most productive and valuable fishing grounds.

The states and federal agencies have agreed to work together to cut the "dead zone" by about half its average size over the next 15 years.

EPA Assistant Administrator for Water and Chair of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, J. Charles Fox, said, "This landmark agreement will help protect the Gulf of Mexico. We are especially pleased that all nine states along the Mississippi River have committed to work with the federal government to resolve a national water quality problem."

The Action Plan establishes a goal of reducing the so-called "dead zone" by reducing its size by half by 2015. They also have agreed to develop strategies to reduce nutrients entering the Gulf, particularly the amount of nitrogen, by 30 percent.

The Action Plan calls for continued research and monitoring to better understand this problem and use the information as a basis to modify the goals and actions as may be necessary in the future.

Every summer along the Texas-Louisiana portion of the Gulf of Mexico, certain nutrients, especially nitrogen, drain down from the Mississippi River into the Gulf and decrease the oxygen supply to aquatic organisms. This area becomes and is referred to as a "dead zone," because some organisms die while others flee the area. The decrease in oxygen, called hypoxia, affects an area that over the last five years has averaged 14,128 square kilometers (5,454 square miles) off Louisiana's coast. This area has traditionally been one of the nation's most productive fisheries.

The decrease in oxygen is primarily the result of excess nitrogen from the 31-state Mississippi River drainage basin. A significant portion of the nutrients entering the Gulf from the Mississippi River come from human activities: discharges from sewage treatment and industrial wastewater treatment plants and storm water runoff from city streets and farms.

Nutrients from automobile exhaust and fossil fueled power plants also enter the waterways and the Gulf through air deposition to the vast land area drained by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. About 90 percent of the nitrates entering the Gulf come from runoff. About 56 percent of the nitrates enter the Mississippi River above the Ohio River. The Ohio basin adds 34 percent of the nitrates. High nitrogen loads come from basins receiving wastewater discharges and draining agricultural lands in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, southern Minnesota, and Ohio.

Under the Action Plan, states, working as river-basin committees, would have flexibility to develop the most effective, practical measures to reduce discharges of nutrients and remove them from their waters. The strategies are expected to rely heavily on voluntary and incentive-based approaches for dealing with agricultural runoff and restoring wetlands. The Action Plan calls for new resources to fund these activities.

Since l997, EPA has chaired the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force to develop this plan for reducing Gulf hypoxia. In l998, Congress passed the Harmful Algal Boom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act which specifically requires this Action Plan.

The plan and additional information are available on EPA's Office of Water web site at: http://www.epa.gov/ow, under "What's New."

More in Environmental