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Congressional Testimony, 2003

Statement of Robert M. Hirsch
United States Geological Survey,
U.S. Department of the Interior
before the
Subcommittee on Water and Power,
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
on H.R. 961,
"Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act"

September 23, 2003

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Robert Hirsch, Associate Director for Water, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department of the Interior (Department) on H.R. 961, the "Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act."

The Department agrees with the goals of H.R. 961; we especially appreciate the bi-partisan efforts of the sponsors of the bill to address this important issue and emphasis within the bill on the need for reliance on sound science. We have concerns about the financial resources that would be required for the USGS to carry out this bill in the context of the availability of resources overall for Administration programs.

The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the USGS, to provide a scientific basis for the management of sediment and nutrient loss in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. This would be accomplished through establishing a sediment and nutrient monitoring network that builds on existing monitoring activities; conducting research and modeling that relates sediment and nutrient losses to landscape, land use and land management characteristics; providing technical assistance regarding use of consistent and reliable methods for data collection; and instituting a program to disseminate new information to managers, scientists and the public.

The role identified for the Department in this bill is consistent with USGS's leadership role in monitoring, interpretation, research, and assessment of the health and status of the water and biological resources of the Nation. As the Nation's largest water, earth, and biological science, and civilian mapping agency, USGS conducts the largest single non-regulatory ambient water-quality monitoring activity in the Nation. The USGS has been active in a number of programs and investigations that involve the Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMRB) specifically.

The USGS is a participant in the Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. This Task Force, which has representation from federal agencies, and state and Tribal governments in the basin, is charged with fulfilling requirements of The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998, by preparing a plan for controlling hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, and shares a common goal of improving water-quality conditions in the Mississippi River Basin.

The USGS also had a lead role in the preparation of a science report that used available water-quality information to define a recent baseline condition for nutrient sources and loads in the Mississippi River Basin -- a baseline from which future water-quality trends and improvements will be measured. This report identifies those parts of the Upper Mississippi River Basin that have the highest nutrient yields.

The USGS has offices in each of the five Upper Mississippi River Basin states. These offices have a long history of conducting water-quantity and water-quality monitoring and assessment activities within the basin. Existing USGS programs include the Hydrologic Networks and Analysis Program, the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, the National Stream Quality Accounting Network, the National Streamflow Information Program, the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, the Water Resources Research Act Program, and the Cooperative Water Program, as well as reimbursable programs, such as the Long-Term Resource Monitoring Program funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These programs currently provide information on nutrients and sediment within the basin.

For the past 20 years, the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) in La Crosse, Wisconsin has provided research support in the Upper Mississippi River Basin to DOI agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address complex issues of navigation, contaminants, and other natural resource concerns. More recently, this Center has developed an active partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, on sediment and nutrient concerns of the agencies. For 15 years, the UMESC has provided the scientific and management leadership for the Long-term Resource Monitoring Program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's Environmental Management Program for the Upper Mississippi River Basin main stem rivers. This monitoring program of water quality, fisheries, vegetation, land use, and other critical indicators of river health is the largest main stem river assessment program in the Nation. The USGS conducts monitoring activities in cooperation with many states and local governments in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The USGS is also active in hydrologic and water-quality studies in the Lower Mississippi River Basin. The continuity of research is important from the standpoint of developing a complete assessment of the entire Mississippi River basin. To this end, the USGS has begun a partnership with the Long-term Estuary Assessment Group, centered at Tulane University.

H.R. 961 acknowledges the need to use all existing monitoring and science programs of the USGS and those of other entities while identifying information needs in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. Existing monitoring and assessment programs and development of models are tools for defining how water-quality conditions are affected by human activities and natural climatic variations and how management actions may best improve water-quality conditions at a wide range of scales from small watersheds to the Mississippi River Basin.

The bill would also authorize integration of activities conducted in cooperation with other federal partners and would emphasize and expand the existing USGS coordination and assistance to state monitoring programs. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program restores wetland habitat in watersheds across the country, including the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The Service can apply its expertise to the reduction of sediment and nutrient loss in the basin through participation in demonstration projects, technical assistance, and working groups. We recognize the need to ensure that future monitoring activities complement and do not duplicate state monitoring activities.

The provisions of H.R. 961 are consistent with Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force recommendations with regard to science and management activities. The proposed legislation describes a program consistent with current USGS activities to support protection of the UMRB.

In summary, the goals of the bill are commendable, and the bill contains provisions that are within the scope and expertise of the USGS, and that are already being addressed by other on-going programs. However, funding for the activities in H.R. 961 is not included in the fiscal year 2004 President's Budget proposal and would remain subject to available resources.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to present this testimony. I will be pleased to answer questions you and other members of the Subcommittee might have.

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