Nation & World

Shutdown postpones Gulf Hypoxia Task Force meeting

Participant says missed meetings slow water quality progress

The Mississippi River flows under the Government Bridge, which features double tracks of rail above the road level, and a dam at Locks and Dam No. 15 while the Centennial Bridge stands in the background as seen in an aerial photograph in Davenport on Nov. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Mississippi River flows under the Government Bridge, which features double tracks of rail above the road level, and a dam at Locks and Dam No. 15 while the Centennial Bridge stands in the background as seen in an aerial photograph in Davenport on Nov. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The reopening of the federal government Friday came too late for a government task force that already had postponed a meeting on water quality, causing some participants to fear a further slowdown in reducing pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf Hypoxia Taskforce, which includes federal and state officials — including Iowa members — called off its meeting next Tuesday in Baton Rouge because of the record-setting shutdown. The group earlier canceled a September meeting because of Hurricane Florence, which means the task force’s last in-person meeting was Jan. 31, 2018.

“It’s obviously frustrating,” said Adam Schnieders, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources water quality resource coordinator.

Schnieders was scheduled to speak at the meeting about Iowa’s use of aerial photos and light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, to map use of conservation practices.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, the new co-chair of the 19-person task force, also was planning to attend.

The task force has asked 12 Midwestern states to reduce by 45 percent the nitrate and phosphorus flowing from agriculture and industry into the Mississippi River. Those nutrients have caused a Delaware-size zone in the Gulf of Mexico where wildlife must flee or die from lack of oxygen.

The group has an interim deadline of a 20 percent reduction by 2025, but The Gazette reported in December there has been little documented progress toward these goals.

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Doug Daigle, a research associate in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University and a member of the task force coordinating committee, said the lack of in-person meetings has slowed progress.

“We’re on a pretty finite timeline as far as the 2025 deadline is concerned,” he said. “Having two meetings in a row canceled doesn’t help the coordination.”

The government shutdown that started Dec. 22 furloughed more than 300,000 federal employees with non-essential jobs, the Washington Post reported. Thousands of other employees are working without pay. A deal reached Friday between President Donald Trump and Democrats would reopen the government for three weeks.

There are six federal employees on the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, including Bill Northey, undersecretary for farm production and conservation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former Iowa agriculture secretary. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administers the task force.

An automatic reply from the email of the EPA official who coordinated the meeting said this week: “I am out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown. I will not be checking messages, but will answer your email upon my return to the office.”

The coordinating committee has continued to hold monthly conference calls without input from federal members. Big topics during these calls are biennial reports the states are required to file with the Congress and a report about industry and municipal polluters, Schnieders said.

“Some of that work continues, but ultimately the EPA works on a lot of those efforts to facilitate those reports,” Schnieders said.

Besides the EPA, the shutdown also has halted work of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Service and the USDA — agencies that administer conservation and water quality programs.

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Schnieders predicts once the government reopens the task force will try to reschedule the meeting quickly.

“They may be looking at when the next continuing resolution might be to make sure it doesn’t have to be postponed again,” he said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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