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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico 5 Monitoring the Effectiveness of Nutrient Control Actions and Strategies A crucial aspect of effective nutrient control programs and load allocation processes is adequate monitoring and understanding of the downstream effects of nutrient load reductions. This section addresses question 3 in this committee’s statement of task, which asks “How should the effectiveness of pollutant loading reduction strategies on the gulf hypoxic zone and state-designated uses, be documented?” WATER QUALITY MONITORING FOR THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER BASIN AND THE NORTHERN GULF OF MEXICO Mississippi River Mainstem and River Basin Federal and state agencies across the Mississippi River basin support many different water quality monitoring programs. At the federal level, much of the water quality monitoring across the river basin is overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), especially through its National Stream Quality Assessment Network (NASQAN) and its National Water Quality Assessment program (NAWQA). The major impetus for establishing the NASQAN program in 1974 was to develop a baseline water chemistry data set that was long-term and systematically collected throughout the nation (USGS, 2008a). In 1991, the USGS implemented the NAWQA Program, just as much of the NASQAN assessment network was being eliminated (USGS, 2008b). The NAWQA program was seen as more comprehensive than NASQAN and aimed to develop long-term consistent and comparable information on streams, rivers, groundwater, and aquatic systems in support of national, regional, state, and local information needs and decisions related to water-quality management and policy (USGS, 2008b). At the state level, states conduct water quality monitoring within their state boundaries as part of their Clean Water Act responsibilities. The previous 2008 NRC report focused on water quality issues along the ten-state Mississippi River corridor and discussed water quality standards and monitoring for the river corridor. That report described past and ongoing efforts
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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico to monitor water quality of the river’s mainstem. These efforts include a Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP) for the upper portion of the Mississippi River. The LTRMP, an element of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Management Program (EMP), is administered by the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, with participation of the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the five upper Mississippi River basin states of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin (USGS, 2008c; see also USGS, 1999 for a report of ecological status and trends on the upper river). The USGS has maintained some NASQAN stations on the river, but “today only a few mainstem water quality sites remain in the USGS network downstream of Lake Pepin” (NRC, 2008). The previous NRC 2008 report also discussed two landmark Mississippi River water quality assessments conducted in the 1990s. These studies were led by, respectively, Robert Meade (1995) and Donald Goolsby (1999), both of whom were USGS scientists at the time of these surveys. More recently, the SPARROW study by the USGS scientists has provided quantitative and detailed information regarding the sources of nutrient loadings across the river basin (Alexander et al., 2008). As called for in the 2001 task force action plan, an Upper Mississippi River Sub-Basin Hypoxia Nutrient Committee (UMRSHNC) has been established to help promote regional research and interstate coordination. Its members are state agricultural and natural resources agencies from the five upper Mississippi River basin states. The UMRSHNC role to date has been primarily to solicit and facilitate stakeholder input and to sponsor workshops. The Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA) is important entity for promoting interstate cooperation and education on a variety of Mississippi River water quality and related river issues (e.g., navigation, hydropower relicensing). Established in 1981, the UMRBA has its headquarters in St. Paul, MN and employs five full-time staff, including a water quality program coordinator. Neither UMRSHNC nor UMRBA have the extent of resources or staff necessary to administer the NCIIs and conduct the associated water quality coordination and evaluation responsibilities. Both organizations, however, have important and relevant experience in the region that would represent useful input to future nutrient control and water quality efforts. The multiple water quality programs across the Mississippi River basin have improved scientific understanding, communication, and cooperation on Mississippi River water quality issues; however, none of them are conducted specifically with regard to Clean Water Act reporting requirements. The previous NRC report also noted that “Although the LTRMP has collected data from thousands of locations along the river for more than 15 years, these efforts have tended to be seasonal and limited to five river reaches. There has been no mechanism to extrapolate these data to intervening portions of the river or to other periods of time” (NRC, 2008). That 2008 report also noted that water quality monitoring of the Mississippi River by the ten states along the river is very limited in many areas, inconsistent among states, and is not well
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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico coordinated (ibid.). This state of water quality monitoring efforts led to a conclusion that the river is an “orphan” from a monitoring and evaluation perspective (NRC, 2008). The report concluded that there is “a clear need for federal leadership in system-wide monitoring of the Mississippi River.” It recommended that “[t]he EPA administrator should ensure coordination among the four EPA regions along the Mississippi River corridor so that the regional offices act consistently with regard to water quality issues along the Mississippi River and in the northern Gulf of Mexico.” It further recommended that “… the EPA should encourage and support the efforts of all ten Mississippi River states to effect regional coordination on water quality monitoring and planning and should facilitate stronger integration of state-level programs.” The previous 2008 NRC report noted that “Monitoring of Mississippi River water quality has not been performed in a system-wide manner for extended periods … and at intervals of time… or space … that would support rigorous assessment of water quality and ecology for the river” (NRC, 2008). A similar point could be made about water quality monitoring for the entire river basin. For example, there is no formal water quality monitoring program at the river basin scale that attempts to link water quality changes with land use practices and changes. At the level of state water quality monitoring, in 2000 the U.S. General Accounting Office (today the U.S. Government Accountability Office) reported that as of 1996, states assessed only 19 percent of their rivers and streams (GAO, 2000). There is also an acknowledged weakness of federal conservation programs in monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness (e.g., local water quality improvements) of these programs. Few goals are set for these conservation programs and there is no formal network to help track, for instance, water quality impacts. The existing water quality database and monitoring infrastructure is too diffuse and inconsistent to provide adequate support for a more comprehensive nutrient control program—such as the NCII—for the Mississippi River basin and northern Gulf of Mexico. Northern Gulf of Mexico Downstream in the northern Gulf of Mexico, current monitoring efforts of hypoxic zone dynamics are supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Ocean Program, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (CSCOR), through a competitive research program. Since 1985, a group of Louisiana scientists, through various competitive research programs funded primarily by NOAA, have conducted measurements of the northern Gulf of Mexico hypoxic area. The observations expanded in 1989 with the development of offshore instrumented observing sites, in 2000 with the addition of a transect off the Atchafalaya River delta, and in 2003 with additional ocean observing systems and limited surveys from additional research cruises. Although a long-term data set has been developed, there is no plan from the NOAA CSCOR competitive research programs to support routine
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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico measurements of hypoxia on the continental shelf. Although the need for monitoring Gulf of Mexico hypoxia is identified in several documents—the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998, the 2001 Action Plan for Reducing, Mitigating, and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, the EPA Science Advisory Board Hypoxia Assessment Panel Report, and the 2008 Action Plan—there is no dedicated Gulf of Hypoxia Monitoring Plan. A Summit on Long-Term Monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone: Developing the Implementation Plan for an Operational Observation System was held in 2007 and an implementation plan is under development. That plan seeks to develop a comprehensive, integrative, sustainable monitoring program for the gulf hypoxic zone, with financial plans for a cooperative monitoring program with long-term funding. Near-term needs were identified for a fiscal year 2009 budget submission, but no action was taken. Modeling and research programs may be able to conduct some basic observational measurements, but there is no long-term commitment for hypoxia monitoring. The 2001 task force Action Plan (see Box 1) cited a need to expand monitoring efforts to better characterize the impact of nutrient loading from the Mississippi River watershed and other factors on hypoxic zone dynamics. Such improvements have not been made, however, as emphasized in the USGS 2004 report, A Science Strategy to Support Management Decisions Related to Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico and Excess Nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin. If progress from the NCIIs is to be adequately measured, thorough monitoring of water quality changes in the northern Gulf of Mexico will be essential. A MISSISSIPPI RIVER BASIN WATER QUALITY CENTER Consistent and adequate funding and support for water quality monitoring and assessment programs, and evaluation of agricultural conservation programs, historically have not been high priorities of the U.S. federal government. Just as the previous 2008 NRC report called for stronger federal leadership for Mississippi River water quality monitoring, stronger federal leadership will be necessary to implement and administer the NCII and to support processes of nutrient load reductions allocations. As mentioned in this report and as documented in the previous, NRC 2008 report on Mississippi River water quality and elsewhere, the existing water quality database and monitoring infrastructure across the river basin is diffuse, spotty, and inadequate to support a systematic nutrient control effort such as the NCII. Sustained and systematic efforts at reducing nutrient loadings across the river basin will require, for example, consistency in the parameters and methods used to track changes in nutrient loadings and water quality. A more focused water quality data collection and assessment effort will be necessary to ensure support of the NCII program and, ultimately, efficient allocation and expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico This improved monitoring and research effort might be accomplished through a variety of changes in expenditures or organizational responsibilities and missions. This committee did not have the resources or expertise to evaluate all possible water quality monitoring and assessment options that might be required to support the NCII. Nevertheless, this committee did consider several crucial functions to be carried out via a strengthened water quality monitoring effort and how they might be most effectively achieved. Those functions include: a capacity to support sustained, consistent collection of water quality data across the river basin; a capacity to support and promote cooperative monitoring and research among USDA, EPA, other relevant federal agencies, state agencies, local experts and officials, and university and other experts; and the capacity and resources to administer the NCII program. One alternative would be to continue essentially with the status quo of water quality monitoring programs, an option explained earlier as being inadequate to support the NCII initiative and other water quality monitoring needs. A variant of the status quo would be to establish a type of “virtual” office or program. This virtual arrangement could include representatives from federal, state, and local agencies, and local farmers and other stakeholders in a new organization, but not employ full-time staff and offices, or require substantial resources. One advantage of this option is that it could be developed and established relatively quickly and with minimal costs. This body, however, would not have the capacity or resources to administer the NCII and conduct the supporting water quality monitoring and research functions. Another alternative would be to delegate NCII administration and related water quality monitoring and research duties to an existing organization with expertise in Mississippi River water quality monitoring activities. Examples of these organizations have been described in this report: the U.S. Geological Survey; the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (which is a USGS center); the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association; or, the Upper Mississippi River Sub-basin Hypoxia Nutrient Committee. All of these organizations employ competent and highly regarded water quality experts, and they all have mandates and staff knowledge that are relevant to the NCII. None of them, however, have the combination of resources, expertise, and mandate to adequately support the NCII program and its goals. The committee considered these various options carefully, and also considered the large water quality monitoring and assessment requirements to administer a NCII program, and the needs to efficiently allocate nutrient load reduction responsibilities in an effective and satisfactory manner. In the end, it was concluded that a new organization, with a physical organization, located in the upper river basin and full-time staff, is necessary to accomplish this ambitious, and essential, water quality monitoring, evaluation, and administration challenge. It thus is recommended that the EPA and the USDA establish and jointly administer a new Mississippi River Basin Water Quality Center. The previous NRC 2008 report stated that, “The Mississippi River, with its
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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico extensive interstate commerce, its ecosystems that cross state boundaries, and its effects that extend into the northern Gulf of Mexico, clearly is a river of federal interest.” Strong federal leadership on coordinating Mississippi River basinwide water quality monitoring and evaluations is essential and justifiable. This interstate river and river basin system require a stronger scientific and institutional framework for sustained, cooperative water quality monitoring, planning, and improvements. There have been and are many water quality monitoring programs across the river basin, and the center should draw upon these efforts and databases, such as the USGS NASQAN and NAWQA, and the monitoring data and reports of the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center. The initial level of funding to establish the center and appoint full-time staff could be relatively modest; as the NCII projects come online, additional center resources will be required. Data collected and evaluated by the center will be useful in informing the process of achieving numeric water quality criteria and the need for TMDLs designed to reduce northern Gulf of Mexico hypoxia to varying degrees. Data and research from the center also could examine the implications of setting instream numeric water quality criteria for nutrients at different levels. The center’s efforts also will be useful in helping identify key variables and statistical approaches to be used in evaluating the local and downstream water quality effects of nutrient control actions. Finding/recommendation 8: To facilitate implementation of this report’s recommendations, a Mississippi River Basin Water Quality Center should be established. The EPA and the USDA should jointly administer the center. The center should be located in the upper Mississippi River basin because this region is the main source of nutrient loadings. The center will represent the nexus of federal interagency, federal-state, and interstate cooperation. The participation of other bodies that play important roles in water quality monitoring—such as the USGS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and state natural resources and water quality agencies—will be vital to the center’s operations and functions. The center should manage a basinwide water quality monitoring, assessment, and nutrient control program and should coordinate and facilitate the following functions: Plan and administer nutrient control implementation initiative (NCII) projects, including financing, evaluation, reporting, and communication of findings; Conduct cooperative, basinwide water quality and land use monitoring and relevant analysis and research; Develop a land use and land cover data base for the river basin; Identify additional watersheds for future actions and inclusion in the NCII; Provide advice on water quality variables and statistical
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Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico approaches to be used in evaluating effectiveness of nutrient control actions; Produce periodic reports on basinwide water quality assessment and on project implementation; Provide technical assistance and training. STRENGTHENED MONITORING FOR THE NORTHERN GULF OF MEXICO Adequate downstream water monitoring in the northern Gulf of Mexico is an essential complement to water quality data gathered upstream and is crucial to documenting the effectiveness of upstream nutrient control actions. Current funding levels and commitments and institutional arrangements, however, do not ensure that this monitoring will be conducted in the future. Finding/recommendation 9: To augment the efforts of the Mississippi River Basin Water Quality Center, the EPA, the USGS, NOAA, and the Mississippi River basin states should strengthen their commitment to systematic, evaluation-oriented water quality monitoring for the northern Gulf of Mexico.
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