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Hurricane Katrina deflects attention from hypoxia issue

Monday, September 26, 2005

So what does Hurricane Katrina have to do with keeping drainage district associations from being named in a Gulf Coast hypoxia lawsuit?

Apparently, quite a bit.

John Torbert, executive director of the Iowa Drainage District Association, gave an annual update to the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors Tuesday. Torbert heads up the Association which includes drainage districts from 36 member counties throughout Iowa. While all landowners in Buena Vista County are subject to service and assessment by a drainage district, some of those 36 counties have only a small portion of their counties served by a drainage district.

Hypoxia, or the presence of excess effluents in the Gulf Coast waters to such an extent that oxygen is cut off from marine life, has been a long-standing problem. Some refer to the area of the greatest extent of hypoxia as the "dead zone" where there is no marine life to speak of at the mouth of the Mississippi. The dead zone, believed to be caused by either nitrogen or phosphorous from nonpoint pollution sources such as fertilizer application on fields, continues west from the mouth of the Mississippi with the prevailing Gulf Coast current.

Torbert said the hypoxia issue has taken a back seat with Hurricane Katrina. However, the issue is sure to return. "It will put some pressure on the Corn Belt states to do something," Torbert said.

Torbert said he attended a hypoxia task force meeting a year ago in St. Paul, Minn., in which task force members discussed how to reduce nitrates. Despite years of conservation efforts, there was no measurable difference in nitrogen loading in the Mississippi, Torbert said, noting, there was "no change that we can see in a 10-year period."

A major problem, said Torbert, is that most conservation efforts are on a small scale, pilot projects in isolated areas. Those efforts have had little or no impact on improvement of Mississippi River nitrate levels, Torbert said.

A major lawsuit could change all that, though, Torbert said.

"Most of the environmental improvement in this country has been the result of a lawsuit or federal action," Torbert said. He said it has usually taken a suit against the federal government, usually the Environmental Protection Agency, to get things done. Despite Katrina, the hypoxia issue isn't going to float downstream.

"The hypoxia issue has the makings of a lawsuit," Torbert said. If the courts set nitrogen-loading limits, said Torbert, "I don't think anybody is going to like the way that's going to affect Iowa. The hypoxia issue is one that has a lot of steam."

Even the causes of hypoxia may be in question, though, Torbert said. He said one study near Atlanta, Ga., showed that phosphorous levels may have been the culprit, not nitrogen.

At the state level, Torbert said the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission has come under fire for not doing enough to enforce standards set by the Clean Water Act. Torbert said there were two issues involved, water treatment and source pollution from ag production and drainage water.

In another water-quality issue, Torbert said the EPA in 2001 in Kansas City had said that not having drainage districts undergo an application process before cleaning out drainage ditches was "inconsistent with the provisions of the Clean Water Act." Torbert said the state Environmental Protection Commission had not done anything about the EPA ruling at the present time.

However, Torbert said the EPA is bringing up the issue again. "We know EPA is agitating about it," Torbert said. Having drainage districts go through an application process would involve time, money, and staff if they were no longer exempted from the application requirements. That would in turn slow down the process and cost money, Torbert said.

Torbert said solutions include creative wetlands, buffer strips, precision farming, and controlled drainage to settle nitrogen from runoff.



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