U.S. Department of the Interior Before the Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards House Committee on Science


U.S. Department of the Interior Before the Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards 
House Committee on Science

"Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia:  Strengthening the Science"

March 13, 2003

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to comment on assessing the detrimental effects of harmful algal blooms and hypoxia on coastal communities, the Federal agenda for scientific research on harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, and reauthorization of the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act. This testimony discusses research and other activities under the existing law and responds to the three questions provided by the Subcommittee. A draft reauthorization bill has been received from the Committee. The testimony does not address the bill, which is under review, but we will be happy to work with the Committee on the bill, and to provide formal comment when it has been introduced. I want to thank the Subcommittee for inviting the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to participate in this hearing on this important issue. Hypoxia and harmful algal blooms are serious problems that adversely affect important ecosystems in coastal and lake States by causing stress or death to bottom dwelling organisms that cannot move out of the hypoxic zone.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) supports the research and assessment activities included in the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 (HABHRCA). Harmful algal blooms and hypoxia continue to be an important and growing issue in coastal waters across the Nation. Also, the geographic scope of our concern has grown. Thus, DOI would support continuation of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia, in which DOI is a member, if the National Science Council decides to continue it. The Task Force provides a key forum for exchange of information, joint planning, and coordination of Federal agencies that contribute to our understanding of the causes and effects of hypoxia and harmful algal blooms. The Task Force also considers the effect of policies and practices that can mitigate those conditions.

In response to the call for action by HABHRCA, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrients Task Force guided publication of the Integrated Assessment of Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico (referred to as the Integrated Assessment) in May 2000, and the Action Plan for Reducing, Mitigating, and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico (referred to as the Action Plan), in January 2001. This Task Force, in which the Department participates along with other Federal agencies and State and Tribal governments, continues to play an important leadership role in implementation of its Action Plan, which emphasizes incentive?based, voluntary efforts for reducing nonpoint source contamination. This Task Force also encourages States, Tribes, and Federal Agencies that are establishing priorities for watershed restoration to consider the potential benefits to the Gulf of Mexico, benefits that otherwise might not have been considered. The Task Force is essential to implementation of the management strategy to address important water-quality issues in the Mississippi Watershed and the northern Gulf of Mexico. It is an important management model for addressing coastal water-quality issues influenced by large watersheds that comprise multiple States and varied land use, climate and geographic terrain.

An over abundance of nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay, the Nation´s largest estuary, contributes to excessive algal blooms and poor dissolved oxygen conditions. These conditions have adversely affected the health of fisheries in the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Program partners, which includes the states in the Bay watershed and the Federal Government, are enhancing nutrient-reduction efforts to improve water quality conditions and thereby reduce the occurrence of algal blooms in the Bay. The USGS is providing science and models of nutrient sources and their delivery to the Bay. The DOI resource managers are developing plans to accelerate and better target the nutrient-reduction actions based on the USGS findings.

Research, monitoring, and modeling related to nutrient and water-quality loads to coastal waters from the landscape are essential elements of identifying current and potential problem areas, understanding the linkages between human actions and the occurrence of hypoxia and harmful algal blooms, and designing and evaluating the performance of management strategies to mitigate those conditions.

The first question posed by the Committee is:  "What are the challenges faced by researchers in developing useful monitoring and modeling techniques of the Mississippi River Watershed and what can we learn from these challenges for such efforts in other watersheds?" Along with data and information from research and monitoring, models and other analytical tools provide the scientific information needed for sound resource management decisions. The major challenge faced by researchers developing and implementing modeling tools is the lack of suitable monitoring data that provide the basis for understanding the natural and human-induced changes in flow and chemical loads to coastal and receiving waters.

Models provide predictive understanding by interpolating and extrapolating from existing measurements. Concepts and computer codes for useful water-quality models exist, but such models require monitoring data for calibration and validation. Moreover, long-term monitoring data serve as the ultimate basis of model performance. Models extrapolate data from sites representative of varying land use and climatic conditions to provide a broader understanding of the sources and causes of adverse water-quality conditions, such as excess nutrient loads, which can cause hypoxia and harmful algal blooms. Models also extrapolate information on the relative performance of alternative management actions from representative sites enabling the design of watershed-wide management strategies. However, these models are limited by the availability of data from monitoring and research studies that describe the recent and historical responses of receiving waters to natural and human-induced changes in water-quality conditions.

Data that are collected are not always available in a consistent manner or with consistent framework. Water-quality monitoring data are being collected by a wide range of Federal, State, Tribal and local government agencies. Through USGS efforts to identify all water-quality data useful for analyses in the Mississippi River Watershed, we found that data often are collected through different programs that use a variety of collection methodologies to support varying specific objectives. Unfortunately, that same variety makes these data inadequate for use in watershed-wide analyses of the effect of adverse water-quality conditions on downstream waters. Simply put, they cannot simply be "rolled up" to provide our answer. However, existing monitoring efforts could be better coordinated to provide data that have consistent data-collection frequency and protocols, quality assurance, and data storage and reporting practices that will make them suitable and available for use in large-watershed analyses.

Historical monitoring data provide the basis for understanding how important water-quality parameters, for example, nutrients, metals or organic contaminants, change over time. They improve our ability to understand the response of our waterways to natural and human-induced stresses. Furthermore, these data provide a baseline from which the effectiveness of future management actions will be measured. Both historical and baseline data are essential for development of sound modeling and decision-support tools. Design and implementation of monitoring networks should anticipate these data needs even in locations that currently are not adversely affected.

The development of watershed level modeling and decision support tools is still in its infancy. We need models with improved accuracy and reliability, and better decision support tools to help decision makers. Research is needed to improve the performance of models, particularly on a watershed basis, and to document the causal relationships between water quality in dynamic river and coastal systems and biological productivity of plants and animals that live in these waters.

The second question posed by the Committee is:  "What are the short-term and long-term goals of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Task Force? Is it on-schedule for achieving these goals?" The Action Plan of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrients Task Force, titled Action Plan for Reducing, Mitigating, and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, defines 3 long-term goals and 11 short-term actions.

The 3 long-term goals are:

  • Coastal Goal:  By the year 2015, subject to the availability of additional resources, reduce the 5-year running average extent of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers through implementation of specific, practical, and cost-effective voluntary actions by all States, Tribes, and all categories of sources and removals within the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin to reduce the annual discharge of nitrogen into the Gulf.
  • Within Basin Goal:  To restore and protect the waters of the 31 States and Tribal lands within the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin through implementation of nutrient and sediment reduction actions to protect public health and aquatic life as well as reduce negative impacts of water pollution on the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Quality of Life Goal:  To improve the communities and economic conditions across the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin, in particular the agriculture, fisheries and recreation sectors, through improved public and private land management and a cooperative, incentive based approach. 
    (The Action Plan, p. 3, is available on the Internet or in hard copy upon request, http://www.epa.gov/msbasin/planintro.htm.)

Publication of these goals was important progress for the Task Force and demonstrated a consensus among the Federal, State and Tribal members for moving forward together with common goals across a watershed that spans a significant part of the Nation and the associated spectrum of interests and priorities. The scientific uncertainty related to the time lags in the response of the watershed to management action makes it difficult to anticipate when improvements will be realized. However, continued monitoring, research, modeling, and adaptive management actions taken in response to the findings will maximize chances for achieving these goals.

The 11 short-term actions and an associated timeline as defined by the Action Plan are listed at the end of this statement and are intended to guide progress toward achieving the long-term goals. The short-term actions include advancing a sub-basin management implementation strategy by formation of sub-basin committees and development of nutrient reduction strategies; landowner assistance plans for voluntary actions to restore, enhance or create wetlands and vegetative or forested buffer strips; and assistance plans for agricultural producers, landowners, and businesses for voluntary implementation of best management practices. The short-term actions include advancing monitoring and research strategies for both the Mississippi River watershed and the Gulf of Mexico to support adaptive management, as well as, reassessing progress toward reducing nutrient loads and the size of the hypoxic zone every 5 years.

Progress has been made on a number of these actions. Although the original timeline has not been rigidly maintained, the Task Force has been actively pursuing its goals . Since publication of the Action Plan, the Task Force has met twice, in February and December 2002. It has formed workgroups to address management implementation, management actions (nonpoint source, point source and restoration), finance/budget, and monitoring modeling and research issues. The USGS and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) co-chair the monitoring, modeling and research workgroup, which is preparing a Monitoring, Modeling and Research Strategy for the Task Force to support management implementation. This document will establish a framework for achieving the short-term actions related to providing the scientific information needed to guide adaptive management in the Mississippi River Watershed and northern Gulf of Mexico.

The third question posed by the Committee is:  "To what extent are Federal research programs focused on the appropriate issues to be most effective in understanding hypoxia?" Research issues related to hypoxia cover a very wide range of scientific areas. USGS is involved in only one subset. However, coordination of Federal research on hypoxia is a recognized priority by involved agencies. Recent coordination was spurred by HABHRCA and the corresponding activities of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrients Task Force. Through these activities, Federal scientists and other experts have worked together to identify research priorities that resulted in the Integrated Assessment and the associated six technical reports.

Satisfying one of the Action Plan´s short-term actions, an interagency plan was developed by NOAA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), USGS, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that summarizes the scientific community's views of key research needs for better understanding and managing of coastal nutrient pollution. This interagency plan is titled, "Nutrient Pollution in Coastal Waters - Priority Topics for an Integrated National Research Program for the United States" (in Press).

Currently, the monitoring modeling and research workgroup of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Task Force is drafting a Monitoring Modeling and Research Strategy, to include information gathered at a workshop held in October 2002 and attended by over 100 expert scientists and managers from government agencies, universities, and the private sector. This strategy will identify priorities for monitoring, modeling and research in the Mississippi watershed and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as priorities for coordination, reporting, and resource needs.

The National Research Council report, Clean Coastal Water: Understanding and Addressing the Effects of Nutrient Pollution (2000), identifies the need for Federal leadership to support and coordinate the research and development needed to reduce and reverse the effects of nutrient over-enrichment. That report makes specific recommendations for Federal action: including, monitoring in coastal and inland areas; improving models for understanding nutrient effects and forecasting trends; and expanding and targeting research to improve understanding of the causes and impacts of nutrient over-enrichment.

These efforts among others have helped identify monitoring, modeling and research needs, as well as the associated needs to coordinate ongoing activities related to hypoxia in coastal waters. The current challenge is improving coordination among numerous involved agencies and filling important needs and gaps in current activities within limited resources.

In summary, harmful algal blooms and hypoxia are important problems for the Nation. They occur where human activities from broad inland areas reach and affect coastal receiving waters. As a result, a key component of a successful solution is coordinated monitoring, modeling and research activities. This will join our efforts to understand the processes and factors that control the sources and causes of excess nutrient and related chemical loads with the processes that cause recurring harmful algal blooms and hypoxia in coastal waters. Therefore, we urge the Subcommittee to advance this joint progress and coordination by acknowledgement and support of both coastal and inland monitoring, modeling and research.

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

ADDENDUM:  Short-term actions and time-frames proposed in the Action Plan to achieve the long-term goals (The Action Plan, p. 13):

#1 By December 2000, the Task Force with input from the States and Tribes within the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin, will develop and submit a budget request for new and additional funds for voluntary technical and financial assistance, education, environmental enhancement, research, and monitoring programs to support the actions outlined in the Action Plan;

#2 By Summer 2001, States and Tribes in the Basin, in consultation with the Task Force, will establish sub-basin committees to coordinate implementation of the Action Plan by major sub-basins, including coordination among smaller watersheds, Tribes and States in each of those sub-basins;

#3 By Fall 2001, the Task Force will develop an integrated Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Research Strategy to coordinate and promote necessary research and modeling efforts to reduce uncertainties regarding the sources, effects (including economic effects in the Gulf as well as the basin), and geochemical processes for hypoxia in the Gulf;

#4 By Spring 2002, Coastal States, Tribes and relevant Federal Agencies will greatly expand the long-term monitoring program for the hypoxic zone, including greater temporal and spatial data collection, measurements of macro-nutrient and micro-nutrient concentrations and hypoxia as well as measures of the biochemical processes that regulate the inputs, fate, and distribution of nutrients and organic material;

#5 By Spring 2002, States, Tribes and Federal Agencies within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin will expand the existing monitoring efforts within the Basin to provide both a coarse resolution assessment of the nutrient contribution of various sub-basins and a high resolution modeling technique in these smaller watersheds to identify additional management actions to help mitigate nitrogen losses to the Gulf, and nutrient loadings to local waters, based on the interim guidance established by the National Water Quality Monitoring Council;

#6 By Fall 2002, States, Tribes and Federal Agencies within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin, using available data and tools, local partnerships, and coordination through sub-basin committees, described in #2 above, will develop strategies for nutrient reduction. These strategies will include setting reduction targets for nitrogen losses to surface waters, establishing a baseline of existing efforts for nutrient management, identifying opportunities to restore flood plain wetlands (including restoration of river inflows) along and adjacent to the Mississippi River, detailing needs for additional assistance to meet their goals, and promoting additional funding;

#7 By December 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), in cooperation with States, Tribes, and other Federal agencies, will, if authorized by the Congress and funded in the fall of 2001, complete a reconnaissance level study of potential nutrient reduction actions that could be achieved by modifying COE projects or project operations. Prior to completion of the reconnaissance study, the COE will incorporate nitrogen reduction considerations, not requiring major modification of projects or project operations or significant new costs, into all project implementation actions;

#8 By January 2003, or on time frame established by the sub-basin committees, Clean Water Act permitting authorities within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin will identify point source dischargers with significant discharges of nutrients and undertake steps to reduce those loadings, consistent with action #6 above;

#9 By Spring 2003, or on time frame established by the sub-basin committees, States and Tribes within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin with support from Federal agencies, will increase assistance to landowners for voluntary actions to restore, enhance, or create wetlands and vegetative or forested buffers along rivers and streams within priority watersheds consistent with action #6 above.

#10 By Spring 2003, or on time frame established by the sub-basin committees, States and Tribes within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin, with support from Federal agencies, will increase assistance to agricultural producers, other landowners, and businesses for the voluntary implementation of best management practices (BMPs), which are effective in addressing loss of nitrogen to water bodies, consistent with action #6 above; and

#11 By December 2005 and every five years thereafter, the Task Force will assess the nutrient load reductions achieved and the response of the hypoxic zone, water quality throughout the Basin, and economic and social effects. Based on this assessment, the Task Force will determine appropriate actions to continue to implement this strategy or, if necessary, revise the strategy.