The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture sent a joint letter to states and tribal groups this week encouraging “reinvigoration” of efforts to reduce agricultural runoff and acknowledging “nutrient pollution continues to be widespread, particularly in the Mississippi River Basin.”
The letter sent Tuesday offers state environmental and agricultural agencies one-on-one meetings with the EPA and USDA to identify ways to reduce nitrates and phosphorus flowing into waterways.
It was sent two days after The Gazette published “Treading Water,” a four-month project documenting how little progress has been made in reducing nitrates and phosphorus washing into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients contribute to an oxygen-deprived dead zone that fish and other organisms must flee or die.
The Gazette found few Midwest states have consistent nutrient-reduction funding, some aren’t documenting what steps they’re taking and most can show no real improvement in nutrient reduction in the past 10 years.
Meanwhile, the dead zone persists, measuring at 2,720 square miles in July.
EPA officials Thursday said the letter does not reflect news reports, rather “months of engagement” with states and other stakeholders.
The letter, signed by David P. Ross, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, and Bill Northey, USDA undersecretary of farm production and conservation and former Iowa Agriculture Secretary, says the agencies want to help states come up with new ways to reduce nonpoint pollution, usually associated with runoff. This pollution, mostly agricultural, has been dealt with almost exclusively on a voluntary basis.
Ross and Northey offer solutions such as streamlining federal approvals for land management activities and “flexibility” on implementation of pollution diets on lakes and rivers.
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“The agencies are committed to engaging with local stakeholders, leveraging our collective resources, and helping to remove regulatory or other barriers that impede progress in this space,” the letter states.
These statements concern Matt Rota, senior policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans.
“One thing that stood out is them offering ‘flexibility’ in implementing TMDLs,” Rota said, referring to the Total Maximum Daily Load plans, or pollution diets, states and the EPA may put on rivers and lakes. “This is potentially concerning if they are thinking of weakening regulatory controls even further to allow for ‘market-based’ solutions.”
The 2008 Gulf Hypoxia action plan recommended states create water quality trading programs, which use a market-based approach of allowing discharging facilities to purchase credits to pay for agricultural conservation projects. But so far, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio are the only states among the 12 in the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force that have tried this.
Some researchers are skeptical there would be enough industry in some states to create viable markets.
“This looks like the same stuff they have been doing,” Rota said. “Backing down on the regulatory side, while promoting voluntary mechanisms that will never get us to where the Gulf needs us to be.”
Northey, who served on the task force from 2007 to 2017, told The Gazette in a Nov. 15 phone interview he did not think regulation would be effective.
“I believe we’re much more likely to scale this if we get folks in the local levels who want to do this,” he said. “They are much more encouraged by their neighbors rather than lawsuits or regulations.”
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The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has not formally responded to the letter, but is open to meeting with the agencies, said Adam Schnieders, the department’s water quality coordinator.
“The EPA and the USDA have routinely provided support, technical assistance, resources, etc., over the years to help Iowa meet its water quality and conservation goals,” he said.
Indiana State Department of Agriculture officials met last month with Northey and Anna Wildeman, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water, said Indiana agriculture spokesman Ben Gavelek.
“We’re not planning on scheduling a one-on-one at this point,” Gavelek said. “Especially with the Hypoxia Task Force meeting right around the corner, which includes Assistant Administrator Ross and is a great time to build collaboration.”
The task force will meet for the first time in a year on Jan. 29 in Baton Rouge, La. A meeting planned for September was canceled because of Hurricane Florence.
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