Watchdog calls for EPA to do more on Gulf of Mexico dead zone

The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog wants it to do more to reduce the runoff pollution that causes the Gulf of Mexico’s massive dead zone.

The EPA works with a task force of 12 states in the Mississippi River watershed to limit agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which causes an oxygen-depleted dead zone about the size of Connecticut in the northern Gulf each summer.

The agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said in a Wednesday report that the state efforts could work, but the EPA needs to better monitor states’ progress and assess their efforts in order to encourage them to reduce runoff.

Agricultural runoff has gotten more national attention since early August, when Toledo, Ohio, issued a do-not-drink order for its municipal water. The problems were caused by runoff that fed a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie.

Before states can take action to cut pollution, they must write plans and reduction targets, the OIG said.

But only two states have written their strategies, three states have set reduction goals and only Minnesota has a timeframe for pollution cuts.

“The EPA encouraged these 12 states to develop methods to track progress toward achieving nutrient reduction goals, but these states have been reluctant to commit to this,” the report said.

“Without both goals and timeframes, we believe the EPA and the states will be unlikely to determine if these strategies are reducing nutrients,” the OIG wrote.

It’s also difficult to track progress, the report said.

“The state and regional personnel we interviewed expressed a concern about their ability to monitor water quality and to a lesser extent, measure the progress of the strategies,” it said.

There are many different factors to consider in measuring runoff, and federal scientists have not found a good way to do it.

Overall, despite state-federal task force’s work since 2001, the Gulf’s dead zone has not gotten significantly better. Scientists believe it needs to shrink by about two-thirds in order to improve marine life.

The EPA agreed with OIG’s findings and said it would improve it would act on them by June 2015.