Back to the Public Comments Page



September 6, 2000

These comments on the Draft Action Plan for Reducing, Mitigating and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico are submitted on behalf of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) and its member states- Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Since 1995, ORSANCO has participated in meetings on the hypoxia situation and reported to its member states on emerging developments. ORSANCO has also conducted, with the support of a grant from US EPA, an assessment of nutrient loadings in the Ohio River Basin, and has recently initiated enhanced monitoring of algae and nutrient levels in the Ohio River. The following comments are offered by the Commission on behalf of its member states. While they represent collective views, they do not supercede the rights of the individual states to submit their own comments.

In the Notice of Availability and Request for Public Comment on the Draft Action Plan, comments are specifically requested in four areas:

  • Which of the "Coastal Goals" should be included in the final plan, and the appropriateness of the "Within Basin" and "Quality of Life" Goals.
  • Whether or not the Implementation Actions and associated dates are appropriate.
  • Provide examples of effective nutrient management.
  • Whether or not the listings of Federal programs in the section "Funding the National Effort" are complete.

The Draft Action Plan is based on a series of technical reports prepared under the auspices of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources Integrated Assessment of Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Those reports present the results of an impressive effort in gathering diverse information on a problem with wide ranging causes. The strength of the Draft Action Plan is the degree to which it incorporates the findings of the technical reports, and to which it recognizes the limitations of current knowledge.

Goals of the Action Plan

ORSANCO believes that the primary goal of the Action Plan should be Coastal Goal 1B- the reduction of the areal extent of Gulf of Mexico hypoxia to less than 5000 square kilometers (1950 square miles) by the year 2010. While reductions in nitrogen loads to the Gulf are necessary to achieve this goal, and while those reductions would be more readily tracked for management purposes, such reductions should not be mistaken for the underlying goal of the effort.

A nitrogen reduction target as a secondary goal of the Action Plan could be supported so long as the Adaptive Management aspect of the plan is retained. It must be recognized that the overall reduction in nitrogen loading to the Gulf will be the sum of hundreds of local nutrient control efforts. At this time, the reductions that will be achieved by programs currently planned and/or being put into place cannot be accurately predicted. As those programs become operative, and their effects on receiving waters can be measured, the nutrient reduction goal can be reassessed.

It must be kept in mind that a given level of reduction in nitrogen loading to the Gulf does not mean that all loads throughout the Mississippi River Basin will be reduced by that same amount. Because phosphorus is usually the limiting nutrient in fresh water situations, many local nutrient control programs on tributary waters will have phosphorus reduction levels as their primary goal. In many instances, the measures taken to reduce phosphorus will also reduce nitrogen loadings, but this will not be their primary intent. In addressing an overall nitrogen reduction goal, attention must be given to determining the extent to which upland loads are delivered to the Gulf.

The Within Basin Goal and the Quality of Life Goal, while certainly worthy in themselves, do not seem to have specific application to the Action Plan. Regarding the Within Basin Goal, it is already the goal of the States and the Tribes to restore and protect their waters. As for the Quality of Life Goal, this should be understood as an underlying goal of any environmental protection effort.

Appropriateness of Implementation Actions

The listed implementation actions provide an ambitious yet well thought out approach. The early actions are of a management nature and do not represent significant resource requirements. The following actions do represent significant resource commitments, however, and their attainment will be dependent in part on the availability of funding called for in the Action Plan.

Two additional actions seem appropriate. First, the Action Plan calls for controls on sub-basins with greatest contributions to Gulf hypoxia and on significant discharges. There needs to be a common understanding of what is meant by these terms to assure that there is equity in the control actions throughout the watershed. It is understood that specific definitions of "sub-basins with greatest contributions" and "significant discharges" will be difficult to come by, given that they are functions of volume, location, and delivery mechanism. Some general agreement on these terms is necessary, however, to avoid the impression that controls are being applied more aggressively in some parts of the watershed than in others.

A second action that will be needed in each sub-basin is a determination of the monitoring necessary to define the nutrient loading from the sub-basin. There must be an agreed-upon monitoring location(s) and frequency to determine current loadings and to provide a measure of the success of control actions.

Examples of Nutrient Management

Because nutrients have not been an historic water quality problem on the Ohio River, this Commission does not have any significant experience with their control. Trend analyses by ORSANCO indicated an overall significant decline in phosphorus levels in the 1980s. Because this was a time when limitations on the phosphate content of detergents sold in the Great Lakes watershed were being imposed, and because states on the north side of the Ohio River lie partially within the Great Lakes watershed, the reduction in ambient levels was attributed to reductions in detergent phosphate content.

While nutrients have not been listed as a water quality problem in the Ohio River itself, they have been identified by the member states as a widespread problem in tributary watersheds. As a result, the states have initiated numerous control programs to address both point and nonpoint sources. These include nutrient removal at municipal and industrial treatment facilities, requirements for manure management plans for animal feeding operations, and numerous local projects funded through the Clean Water Act Section 319 grant program. It is understood that state agencies do have data to document local water quality improvement due to nutrient controls.

Are the Listings of Federal Programs Complete

The listing appears to be complete. The importance of the funding foreseen in this section to the timely implementation of the Action Plan must be reiterated.

The Draft Action Plan identifies key roles and responsibilities for private citizens and businesses, states, tribes, and federal agencies. As an interstate river basin commission that has represented its member states at meetings of the Task Force, ORSANCO must note the lack of discussion of the role of such commissions. The member states of ORSANCO have recognized the wisdom of approaching the Gulf hypoxia situation collectively through an existing mechanism; it is hoped that the Action Plan would also recognize the potential benefits of such an approach.

ORSANCO and its member states recognize their responsibility to assure that nutrients discharged to the Ohio River and its tributaries do not adversely affect downstream watersheds. As such, we will be keenly interested in the final Action Plan and its implementation.

Vasiliki Keramida, Ph.D.

Back to the Public Comments Page