A new state-federal plan calls for slashing the size of the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” by half over the next 15 years, something that would require nutrient reductions from the Mississippi basin that dwarf those the Bay Program has struggled to reach since 1987.

An “action plan” signed by 10 federal agencies, nine states and two Indian tribes was sent to the president and Congress in January. It calls for reducing the amount of nitrogen flowing down the Mississippi River by about 30 percent to slash the size of the oxygen-depleted area.

By contrast, the Bay states have been working to achieve a 20 percent nitrogen reduction, although new cleanup goals to be set by the end of this year are expected to call for further nutrient control efforts.

Efforts to restore the Gulf could include reducing fertilizer use on farms, restoring wetlands and increasing the use of buffer strips along rivers and streams.

But the future of the Gulf cleanup program depends on whether the Bush administration and Congress decide to support it. Implementation of the plan is contingent on increased federal support, something estimated to require about $1 billion a year.

“A lot of this is going to be conditioned on Congress and the administration providing the funding to do it,” said Chuck Fox, former head of the EPA’s Office of Water, and chair of the task force that wrote the report.

Both the states and federal agencies represented on the task force agreed that, because of the scale of the problem, more money would be needed for any Gulf initiative to move forward. “That was pretty unifying to everybody,” said Fox, who is now working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

That means the Gulf effort could compete with the Chesapeake Bay for federal funding. But it would also draw more attention to the problem of nutrient pollution.

“Increasingly, throughout the country, there are more and more large-scale restoration efforts under way, and at some level there is a competition” for funding, Fox said. “But in the end, it will probably very much complement rather than compete because so many of the solutions for the Gulf of Mexico’s problems are going to be the same for the Chesapeake’s problems.”

That could result in more emphasis on nutrient control programs — which would also benefit the Bay — as Congress takes up writing a new farm bill this year.

“Hopefully, a lot of these programs will come together nationally and we will get a more effective response to these problems,” Fox said.

The Mississippi drains an area 19 times the size of the Bay watershed, including most Midwestern agricultural centers. About 90 percent of the nitrogen in the Mississippi basin comes from runoff, mainly agriculture. In the Bay, about 80 percent of the nitrogen comes from runoff.

An area of hypoxic (low oxygen) water appears along the Louisiana-Texas coast each year. The size of the “dead zone” has generally expanded since the mid-1980s, and over the last five years has averaged about 5,454 square miles. In some years, it has grown to more than 9,000 square miles, the size of New Jersey.

The “action plan” approved by the states and the EPA calls for cutting the average size of the dead zone in half over the next 15 years.

It has been estimated that the plan will require a 30 percent reduction in the amount of nitrogen flowing down the Mississippi River, although that figure would be re-evaluated over time. As in the Chesapeake, the nutrients fuel algae growth in the Gulf. As algae die, they sink to the bottom and decay in a process that depletes the water of oxygen.

Most of the cleanup effort would focus on Midwestern states upstream of the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But the plan ultimately calls for all jurisdictions in the 31-state basin, which includes parts of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, to play a part in cleanup efforts.

For more information, see “Plan could cut nitrogen loads to Gulf by 30 percent,” [Bay Journal, November 2000] The action plan is available on the internet at: www.epa.gov/msbasin/actionplanintro.htm