|George H. Ryan, Governor||Joe Hampton, Director|
Office of the Director
P.O. Box 19281
Springfield, IL 62794-9281
217/782-2172; Fax 217/785-4505
September 8, 2000
Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Action Plan (4503F)
c/o U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20460
The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998, Title VI of P.L.105-3, section 604(b) requires that the President, in conjunction with the chief executive officers of the states, submit a plan for reducing, mitigating, and controlling hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The law also requires that the plan include the social and economic costs and benefits of the measures for reducing, mitigating, and controlling hypoxia. The draft Action Plan published in the Federal Register on July 11, 2000 has, in large part, failed to meet the requirements of the law. These shortcomings are the result of the failure of the Integrated Assessment to appropriately integrate the findings of the six topic reports, identify conflicts between the assumptions or the results of each team=s efforts, and, if necessary, repeat certain analyses.
For example, the Topic 6 Report=s economic analyses minimize the costs and inflate the benefits of creating millions of acres of wetlands and riparian areas. The authors of that report indicate that they Adid examine concentrating new wetlands geographically on the Ahot spots@ of nitrogen loss; however, we found no clear advantage in doing so. The geographical limitation to a hot-spot watershed or region tended to greatly increase land acquisition cost, given the limited supply of wetland sites.@ (p. 5, Topic 6 report) That would seem to indicate that the cost of installing wetlands on the most productive farmland in Illinois and Iowa would be cost prohibitive. Meanwhile, the Topic 5 report, the Integrated Assessment and the draft Action Plan call for placing wetlands and riparian areas in the Ahot spots@ of nitrogen loss.
The draft Action Plan has been difficult to review because the plan is inconsistent in its discussion of critical issues, such as the role of nutrient standards and regulations, phosphorus reductions and the adaptive management approach. On one hand, it talks about an adaptive management framework and voluntary, incentive-based efforts. On the other hand, it provides Aa basin wide context for the continued pursuit of .... regulatory controls for point sources,@ nutrient criteria and standards, TMDLs, NPDES permits and a quantitative goal. This shift in language and intent is contrary to the win-win strategy originally espoused by the federal agencies and agreed to by the Task Force. Until such time as there is a clear, scientifically defensible demonstration of the connection between nutrient losses in the Basin and the size of the hypoxic zone, all language regarding regulatory controls, standards or permits should be removed from the Action Plan. In addition, the USEPA should go on record that it will not base nutrient criteria or standards, in any way, on the postulated, but causally not well established, link to Gulf of Mexico hypoxia. A similar conflict occurs as a result of the recent decision by the federal agencies to add phosphorus control into the goals of the Action Plan. The authors of the Action Plan have failed to heed the admonition of the Topic 4 Report regarding the different behavior, sources and geography of nitrogen and phosphorus loss to surface waters.
We continue to be concerned about the adequacy of the scientific analyses which are being used as a basis for the Action Plan. The federal agencies appear unwilling to reconsider the assumptions underlying their analyses or re-evaluate their conclusions in light of new data or new analyses. They seem committed to promulgating and implementing an Action Plan which could have very significant impacts on both rural and urban areas of Illinois and few benefits downstream.
Although we have many technical concerns about the Action Plan, the most critical issues are:
Nutrient standards and TMDLs to protect the Gulf
The draft Action Plan requires states to adopt water-quality standards for nutrients, including criteria for nitrogen that are tailored to the coastal ecoregions of the Northern Gulf of Mexico and near coastal waters of the Gulf hypoxic zone. The Action Plan also states that "The work of the Task Force has provided a basin wide context for the continued pursuit of both incentive-based voluntary efforts for nonpoint sources and regulatory controls for point sources."
[NOTE: The development of nutrient criteria is a separate, but closely related, effort by the USEPA. The current plan is that the USEPA will publish criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus in December of this year and the states will have three years to adopt water-quality standards for those nutrients. If a state fails to adopt nutrient standards, the USEPA will promulgate standards for that state.]
The Integrated Assessment upon which the Action Plan is largely based discusses using a criterion of 1.5 mg/L of total nitrogen for rivers and streams. (The hypoxic zone in the Gulf is attributed to stratification of the water, due to freshwater inflows, and to excess nutrients, primarily nitrogen. In fresh water systems, phosphorus is the nutrient which most often controls algal growth.) Because point source dischargers must meet water quality standards, it is likely that many municipal wastewater treatment plants in Illinois will be required to provide tertiary treatment to reduce nitrogen at a cost of billions of dollars. (The average total nitrogen concentration in wastewater effluent is about 16 mg/L.) We are very concerned about the obvious economic impact on urban areas.
The requirement that TMDLs ensure compliance with standards will, in many cases, place the burden on the State to develop TMDLs solely to meet goals for the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with the current TMDL priorities, almost every acre in Illinois will be a high priority for TMDLs. [There is little overlap between the current TMDL priorities in the Chicago area and southern Illinois and those areas of the state which should be hypoxia priorities, the tile-drained soils in central and northern Illinois.] While we are concerned about those instances in which a public water-supply system exceeds the drinking water standard for nitrate, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency already is working with each of those communities and with landowners to address the issue. We believe that excessive phosphorus and sediment should remain as the primary pollutants of concern in targeting state resources.
Effects of nitrogen-reduction goal on Illinois agriculture
In Illinois, some producers may be able to reduce edge-of-field nitrogen losses by 10 to 15% with best management practices (BMPs), such as adjusting rates and timing, without effecting yields. Other producers, who have already fine-tuned their nitrogen inputs, will not have that management option. A wholesale change from fall to spring fertilizer application and creating millions of acres of wetlands or riparian areas could have tremendous impacts on agriculture. Although not specified in the draft Action Plan, the Integrated Assessment lists the restoration of 5 million acres of wetlands within the entire Mississippi River Basin as one approach to achieving a 20% reduction in nitrogen loading to the Gulf. Although the Integrated Assessment states that this would result in the conversion of only 0.7% of the entire Mississippi River Basin, the authors of the Topic 5 Report provided estimates on the most effective distribution of wetlands and riparian areas within the Basin. The range of alternatives discussed in that report demonstrate the potential impacts on Illinois agriculture. In the Illinois River watershed alone, anywhere from 475,000 acres to more than 3.5 million acres could be converted to wetlands or riparian areas. Because in those areas where the nitrogen load is the greatest land use may be more than 90% cropland, the impacts on agriculture could be dramatic.
Absence of a Cost:Benefit Analysis
The legislation which created the Task Force (PL 105-383) requires that the President, in conjunction with the chief executive officers of the States, submit a plan to address Gulf Hypoxia, including a description of the social and economic costs and benefits. Currently, the Action Plan does not include a description of the social and economic costs and benefits and, therefore, does not comply with the statutory requirements.
The Integrated Assessment states: "The benefits of a program to reduce nitrogen loads to the Gulf are difficult to quantify. Although there are known impacts to the Gulf ecosystem, an economic analysis based on past data did not detect a direct relationship between hypoxia and Gulf fisheries. The information to estimate the benefit value for such actions as restoring the ecological communities in the Gulf or improving the water quality in the Basin is not available" (Integrated Assessment, page 44). The Topic 6 Report concludes that "... the direct measurable dollar benefits to Gulf fisheries of reducing nitrogen loads from the Mississippi River Basin are very limited at best." There is not even a statistically significant relationship between the annual flux of total nitrogen from the Mississippi River and the surface extent of the summer-time hypoxic zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
According to the Topic 6 Report, "Social costs would also be incurred, such as dislocation in land use, agribusiness infrastructure, and farm communities. We can tell in some cases, and infer in others, where we might begin to incur unacceptable costs of this kind on the basis of historical shifts in crop production, land use, and input use. We did not estimate these costs." Also, the analysis does not discuss the impacts on local units of government in areas where large amounts of cropland are taken out of production. In Illinois, property taxes on wetland acres are only 1/6th of the taxes on cropland of the same productivity.
The analysis did not address economic impacts within specific states or watersheds. However, the report concludes that "Severe restrictions on nitrogen loss from agriculture mean that production ceases on acres in the Mississippi River Basin that are especially vulnerable to nitrogen loss" (e.g., the Illinois River Basin). Neither the economic analysis nor the Integrated Assessment address the comparative costs and benefits to the industries potentially impacted by the Gulf hypoxia issue. The Integrated Assessment states that the fisheries of the Gulf generate $2.8 billion annually. In 1997 Illinois alone exported more than $3.7 billion in commodities; total cash receipts were more than $9 billion. While the CENR reports found no economic impacts on the Gulf fisheries as a result of hypoxia, the proposed solutions could have severe impacts on the economy of states such as Illinois.
Moreover, the validity of the economic analysis is questionable because:
Problem still not well understood
Don Goolsby of the U.S. Geological Survey presented data at the December AScience Meeting@ which indicated a very high correlation between the size of the hypoxic zone and nitrate flux at Thebes during the spring. Whether it is the annual load of total nitrogen delivered to the Gulf or the May-June load of nitrate that is important to the development of the hypoxic zone affects the selection of the most appropriate and cost-effective alternatives to reduce those loadings. The drastic reduction in the size of the hypoxic zone this summer, as predicted by Don Goolsby in the spring, certainly raises serious questions about the goal of a 20-40 % reduction in annual total nitrogen loading to the Gulf and the emphasis placed on infrastructure solutions such as wetlands and riparian areas or biological removal at sewage treatment plants.
We disagree with the recent decision of the federal agencies to include phosphorus reductions as a goal of the Action Plan to address Gulf hypoxia, which has resulted in an inconsistent presentation of the Action Plan=s goals and approach (See Implementation Actions #2 and #5 and the Key Roles and Responsibilities). We oppose inclusion of phosphorus, not because reduction in phosphorus loadings to surface water bodies is not a necessary water quality goal, but because neither the topic reports nor the Integrated Assessment provide an adequate basis for its inclusion. The benefits of phosphorus reductions to the Gulf have not been demonstrated.
Moreover, as pointed out in the Topic 4 Report (p 113-114), AThe processes by which nutrients are transported through agricultural lands and delivered to receiving waters differ for nitrogen and phosphorus. The former is associated more with subsurface drainage, and artificial (tile) drainage is an important factor contributing to high N losses. The latter is associated more with surface runoff, and soil erosion is an important factor contributing to high P losses. Consequently, options for reducing losses also must be considered separately.@ For example, water-table management may reduce nitrate leaching, but increase phosphorus movement and erosion by increasing runoff. Also, the most effective wetlands to remove nitrogen would intercept tile drains, while for phosphorus retention, wetlands should intercept surface runoff.
In Illinois, the areas with the greatest potential loss of nitrogen are nearly level, imperfectly drained soils. Areas with phosphorus causing impairments of surface waters are erosive, sloping soils. If the federal agencies attempt to solve all water quality issues in one plan, almost all cropland will be a priority and the efforts to address Gulf hypoxia will be diluted and ultimately unsuccessful.
The draft Action Plan proposes three possible alternative long-term coastal goals:
"1.A -- to reduce, by 2010, annual discharges of nitrogen to the Gulf from the Mississippi/ Atchafalaya Rivers by 350,000 to 650,000 metric tons -- equivalent to a 20 to 40% reduction in the annual average loading during the period 1980-1996. This reduction should be pursued through a combination of actions to curb direct discharges of nitrogen bearing domestic and industrial wastewater, to reduce losses of excess nutrients from agricultural operations, and by intercepting and processing nutrients in riparian buffers and constructed or restored wetlands."
"1.B -- to reduce the 5-year running average areal extent of Gulf of Mexico hypoxia to less than 5,000 square kilometers by the year 2010. The best current science says that to make significant progress toward that goal, average nitrogen loads to the Gulf should be reduced by 30% from the 1980-96 average. Identification of specific actions within the basin, to achieve that 30% nitrogen load reduction, should be developed through the implementation actions outlined in this Action Plan."
Because of the significant uncertainties about the effects of a specific level of nitrogen reduction on the size of the hypoxic zone, the failure of the draft Action Plan to assess the economic and social costs and benefits of proposed solutions and the severe adverse impacts on Illinois agriculture and cities, the Action Plan should not include any type of quantitative goal at this time. Rather a true iterative, adaptive management approach should be taken in which the success of voluntary, incentive -based measures and responses in the Gulf are monitored and management measures are adjusted in light of those findings.
"1.C -- to pursue practical, cost-effective efforts by all states and tribes within the basin and all categories of sources to protect the ecological and fisheries resources of the northern Gulf of Mexico by reducing nutrient over-enrichment."
We can agree with this goal.
Within Basin Goal -- to restore and protect the waters of the 31 States and tribal lands within the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin and their aquatic ecosystems in order to protect public health and aquatic life, as well as reduce negative impacts on downstream waters.
Neither the CENR reports nor the Integrated Assessment presented convincing evidence that excess nitrogen is a widespread problem affecting the aquatic resources within the Mississippi River Basin. Although there are instances where nitrate concentrations exceed the drinking water standard in surface water sources for public water supplies, adequate evidence has not been presented to show that high nitrogen levels are affecting the goals of fishable and swimmable streams within the Basin. Although phosphorus reduction has recently been added to the Action Plan and it is the nutrient most affecting the freshwater systems of the Basin, as previously stated, we oppose inclusion of phosphorus in the Action Plan. We believe that the Action Plan should focus solely on nitrogen and the Gulf.
"Quality of Life Goal -- to improve the communities and economic conditions across the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin, in particular the agriculture, fisheries and recreation sectors, through improved public and private land management and a cooperative, incentive based approach."
The Topic 6 Report concluded that "Severe restrictions on nitrogen loss from agriculture mean that production ceases on acres in the Mississippi River Basin that are especially vulnerable to nitrogen loss" (e.g., the Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, southern Minnesota). The quality of life goal will be difficult to achieve when production ceases in large parts of the most productive area within the Basin. We also note there are no implementation actions or key roles and responsibilities designed to achieve this goal, nor any indicators to be tracked to see if the goal is being reached.
The draft Action Plan indicates that "States and Tribes will" implement actions without identifying the resources which the States and Tribes will need to:
The federal agencies should recognize that, in many cases, state agency resources are already fully committed to addressing in-state water quality issues. Although the initial budget initiative included in the Action Plan describes a AWatershed Partnership Investment Fund@ to strengthen State and Tribal capacity to address many of these items, no specific funding level nor time frame for funding is stated. Prior to any attempt to adopt a quantitative goal or pursue regulatory approaches, USEPA should provide funding to each state for detailed studies of the social and economic costs and benefits within each state and for state-level assessments of the feasibility of the solutions included in the Action Plan and the Integrated Assessment. In addition, most of these implementation actions will require State or Tribal legislative authorization, rulemaking and funding. The time frames for implementation of the action items should reflect the need for these actions by the states and tribes.
Comments on specific implementation actions
"#1 By Summer, 2001: the Task Force will establish sub-basin committees to coordinate implementation of the Action Plan by major sub-basin, including coordination among smaller watersheds and States in each of those sub-basins;"
We do not believe that creation of an additional organizational structure is needed. Most states would be on more than one sub-basin committee and do not need that additional workload. In addition, the legislative, institutional and legal framework for addressing water quality issues are specific to each state.
"#2 By Fall, 2001, States, Tribes and Federal Agencies within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin, using available data and tools, will develop strategies for nutrient reduction in the sub-basins with greatest contributions to Gulf hypoxia. These strategies will include setting reduction targets in metric tons of nitrogen, establishing a baseline of existing efforts for nutrient management, identifying opportunities to restore flood plain wetlands (including restoration of river inflows) along and adjacent to the Mississippi River, detailing needs for additional assistance to meet their goals, and promoting additional funding;"
First, this item should be modified to add language, such as, "The states and tribes, when authorized pursuant to their laws and appropriately funded by the federal agencies, will..."
Secondly, the inclusion of language regarding setting reduction targets in metric tons of nitrogen is not appropriate. The Task Force has not agreed to a quantitative goal.
We have also noted the recent addition of language to the Action Plan not discussed by the Task Force to restore flood plain wetlands (including restoration of river inflows) along and adjacent to the Mississippi River. We are concerned that such an undertaking will mean additional losses of prime farmland in Illinois and may affect the functioning of levee districts. We also note that wetlands adjacent to the Mississippi River may not be as effective in removing nitrate as wetlands closer to the source, e.g., tile-drained cropland. In addition, we are concerned that the Action Plan for addressing Gulf hypoxia has become a shell within which to insert other environmental goals, such as wildlife habitat restoration, which are not directly or indirectly related to the previously stated overall goal of the plan.
"#3 By Fall, 2001, Clean Water Act permitting authorities within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin will identify point source dischargers with significant discharges of nutrients and undertake steps to reduce those loadings, consistent with action 2, above;"
This Implementation Action is another example of the misleading manner in which the draft Action Plan has been prepared. As spelled out in several of the items under Key Roles and Responsibilities, it is obvious that the intent is to require point sources to reduce nitrogen discharges through the use of water quality standards, TMDLs and NPDES permits.
"#4 By Spring 2002, States and Tribes within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin with support from Federal agencies, will increase assistance to landowners for voluntary actions to restore, enhance, or create wetlands and vegetative or forested buffers along rivers and streams within priority watersheds consistent with action 2, above;"
The wording of this item is too broad. Any wetland or riparian areas should be targeted to achieve the maximum possible reduction in nitrogen and not placed on the basis of willing sellers or for habitat restoration purposes.
This item should be modified to add language, such as, "The states and tribes, when authorized pursuant to their laws and appropriately funded by the federal agencies, will..."
"#5 By Fall 2002, States and Tribes within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin, with support from Federal agencies, will increase assistance to agricultural producers, other landowners, and businesses for the voluntary implementation of best management practices (BMPs), which are effective in addressing loss of nitrogen to waterbodies, consistent with action 2, above;"
This item should be modified to add language, such as, "The states and tribes, when authorized pursuant to their laws and appropriately funded by the federal agencies, will..."
"#6 By Fall, 2001, The Task Force will propose an integrated Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Research Strategy to coordinate and promoting funding for necessary research and modeling efforts to reduce uncertainties regarding the sources, effects (including economic effects in the Gulf as well as the basin), and geochemical processes for hypoxia in the Gulf;"
This Implementation Action should be the primary short-term goal pursued by the Task Force with the addition of an adequate analysis of the social and economic costs and benefits.
Key Roles and Responsibilities
"States and Tribes"
The items in this listing of key roles and responsibilities of States and Tribes are not consistent with other parts of the Action Plan and do not describe other USEPA activities directly related to this issue. The USEPA is currently finalizing nutrient criteria for 14 ecoregions in the U.S. including the Mississippi River Basin. Under the listing of Key Roles and Responsibilities, States, Tribes, and Federal Agencies, the draft Action Plan states that the criteria for nitrogen will be tailored to the coastal ecoregions of the northern Gulf of Mexico and near coastal marine waters of the Gulf hypoxic region. After the USEPA promulgates these criteria in December 2000, the States will have three years to adopt enforceable water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus (page 6, National Strategy for the Development of Regional Nutrient Criteria: EPA 822-R-98-002).
Although, in most cases, the concentration of nitrogen does not limit algae growth in fresh water systems of the Mississippi River Basin, the apparent intent of the draft Action Plan is that states will apply a Gulf-based standard to all waterbodies within their state. The extent to which nitrogen standards are justified within and adopted for each ecoregion will certainly contribute to reduced nitrogen loading to the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is unrealistic to assume that states have the ability or inclination to tailor ecoregion nutrient standards to a perceived need for the coastal ecoregions of the northern Gulf of Mexico. As stated elsewhere, the data and science to justify nitrogen water quality standards for river systems of the upper Midwest states simply do not exist at this time.
Adaptive Management: Action, Monitoring and Research
The draft Action Plan includes the following description of an adaptive management approach.
"The complex nature of nutrient cycling and transport within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River basins and Gulf of Mexico make it difficult to predict specific improvements in water quality that will occur both in the Gulf as well as the entire Mississippi River basin for a given reduction in nutrient loads.Further, it is clear that environmental responses to management actions in the basin likely will be slow, possibly requiring decades to demonstrate that remedial actions have helped the recovery of oxygen concentrations in the Gulf and have improved water quality in the Basin. Finally, while the current understanding of the causes and consequences of Gulf of Mexico hypoxia is drawn from a massive amount of direct and indirect evidence collected and reported over many years of scientific inquiry, significant uncertainties remain. Further monitoring, modeling and research are needed to reduce those uncertainties in future assessments and to aid decision making in an adaptive management framework. A comprehensive program of planning, monitoring, interpretation, modeling, and research to facilitate improvement in scientific knowledge and adjustments in management practices should be coupled to the initial nutrient management strategies identified in this plan. This adaptive management scheme involves continual feedback between interpretation of new information and improved management actions and is the key to targeting BMPs within watersheds where they will actually be effective."
In large part, we wholeheartedly agree with these statements. We are confused, however, by the fact that the draft Action Plan can include these statements, while in other sections call for a 20 to 40 percent reduction in total nitrogen loadings to the Gulf and the creation of a regulatory framework for point sources. The regulatory framework described in the Plan is contrary to the adaptive management approach to addressing Gulf hypoxia. How will a metropolitan sewage treatment plant adapt its management approach after spending millions of dollars on infrastructure improvements for the biological removal of nitrogen?
The final Action Plan should unequivocally state that nutrient criteria for freshwater systems within the Basin will not be based in any way on the Gulf.
In summary, we oppose adoption of the Action Plan in its current form because (1) major scientific uncertainties remain and (2) under some of the proposed solutions:
We oppose adoption because the economic analyses:
We believe that enough questions have been raised recently to indicate the need for additional time to reconsider this issue and the proposed solutions. Additional time for further evaluation of the causes of the hypoxic zone and detailed assessments of the impacts of proposed solutions on various states and industries is needed and reasonable. Prior to any attempt to adopt a quantitative goal or use regulatory tools, USEPA should provide funding to each state for detailed studies of the social and economic costs and benefits within each state and for state-level assessments of the feasibility of the solutions included in the Action Plan.
Illinois has made tremendous progress in controlling soil erosion and addressing in-state water-quality problems from both point and nonpoint sources. In recent decades, soil losses have been reduced to below T on nearly 90 percent of cropland acres and the concentration of nitrogen in the Illinois River has been reduced by about 50 percent. Local, state and federal agencies, the agricultural industry, and farm and environmental organizations are implementing many programs to further reduce nutrient impacts on water resources. But without a higher level of confidence about the science behind the Action Plan and greater knowledge about the potential impacts of the proposed solutions on Illinois, we will continue to oppose adoption of the draft action Plan and quantitative goals.
The Action Plan should be revised to:
An effective action plan, even one based on a truly voluntary and incentive-based adaptive management approach, must be based on a higher level of scientific confidence than is currently demonstrated. A belief that hypoxia in the Gulf is caused by nutrients from Illinois and other Midwestern states (page 5, Nutrient Criteria Technical Guidance Manual, River and Streams: EPA-822-B-00-002) is no substitute for establishing a causal chain of understanding when so much is at stake. The Guidance Manual itself (page 3) states that "Recognizing cause-and-effect relationships between nutrient input and general waterbody response is the first step in mitigating the effects of cultural eutrophication."
Submission of the Action Plan
Although the law requires that the President submit the plan Ain conjunction with the chief executive officers of the States@, the USEPA has indicated that it does not anticipate that the Action Plan will be submitted to the governors of the 31 affected states for their concurrence.
How can this be a voluntary program, if the key players, the states and tribes, are not being asked if they wish to volunteer? Because of the potential impacts on agriculture and the cities of the basin, the costs to state and tribal governments and the use of water quality standards to achieve USEPA goals, the USEPA should comply with the clear intent of Congress and submit the final Action Plan to the governors of the 31 states.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the draft Action Plan for reducing, mitigating and controlling hypoxia in the northen Gulf of Mexico.
Illinois Department of Agriculture
Thomas V. Skinner
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
Illinois Department of Natural Resources