La. agencies to address ‘dead zone’ nutrients in the Gulf

Four state agencies have begun work on a plan that will address Louisiana’s contributions to the nutrients that end up in the Gulf of Mexico and help create the “dead zone” of low oxygen that appears every summer.

The Louisiana State Nutrient Team is made up of representatives from the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Natural Resources.

Louisiana contributes very little to the total amount of nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River into the Gulf, but state officials said Louisiana could offer part of the solution through planned diversions of sediment and water from the river into surrounding marshes.

That’s one of the reasons the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has taken the lead for the Louisiana State Nutrient Team in putting together a state nutrient management plan, said Rick Raynie, chief scientist in the planning and research division of the coastal authority.

In addition, Garret Graves, the state’s representative on the national Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, is the chairman of the coastal authority. That national group’s latest action plan, released in 2008, included the recommendation that each of the 12 states involved in the group put together a statewide nutrient management plan, Raynie said.

Also, Louisiana, through its master plan for coastal restoration and protection, is planning a number of freshwater and sediment diversions that could put some of the river water into the marsh where plants could remove some of the nutrients in the water, he said.

“We wanted to make sure those diversion projects were part of the solution,” Raynie said.

The state received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop the plan, he said.

Right now, the group is talking with agriculture interests, academics, environmental and coastal groups as well as gathering information about nutrients in watersheds across the state.

The group will research existing programs and examine how the agencies can improve the way they work together, Raynie said.

A final draft is expected at the end of the year, he said.

For instance, DEQ is providing much of the stream information it collected through Clean Water Act requirements. That information will help determine what the plan will look like, said Amanda Vincent, environmental staff scientist with DEQ.

There’s already quite a bit going on in the agriculture and forestry sections of the state with best management practices like conservation tillage and coverage crops that help keep nutrients in the soil instead of washing into the waterways, she said.

“I would definitely say we’re ahead of the game,” said Carrie Castille, associate commissioner with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

DNR’s Office of Coastal Management is also involved because so much of the activity along the coast goes through that office for approval, said Keith Lovell, the office’s administrator.

The office has been working on a coastal nonpoint pollution control program for years. Nonpoint pollution is material that doesn’t come from a pipe but instead from a wide area, such as fertilizer washed off a lawn during a rain storm.

The group has set up a website that includes surveys for different groups such as cities, businesses, industry, agriculture, residents, academic and nonprofit organizations. Those surveys are available at http://lanutrientmanagement.org.