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Statement for the Record, U.S. Geological Survey

June 9, 2010

Before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power, on S. 2779, the Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act

Statement for the Record

U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Department of the Interior

before the

Subcommittee on Water and Power

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources


S. 2779

June 9, 2010


Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Subcommittee, the Department of the Interior appreciates the opportunity to provide its views on S. 2779, the “Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act.”


The Department considers sediment and nutrient loss in the Upper Mississippi River Basin to be a real threat to the health of the ecosystem and appreciates the efforts of the sponsors of S. 2779 to address this important issue. We especially value the emphasis within the bill on the need for reliance on sound science to inform wise management of nutrients and sediments in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.  However, we have concerns about the financial resources that would be required for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to carry out the full scope of activities described in this bill.  Carrying out these activities would mean diverting resources away from other priority programs.  The Department of the Interior supports the goals of S. 2779, although we note that the activities called for in this bill are well within the scope of existing Department of the Interior authorities and  activities already underway by the Department that are aimed at addressing the same problems addressed in this bill.


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 relate sediment and nutrient gains and 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 the USGS’s leadership role in monitoring, interpretation, research, and assessment of the health and status of the water and biological resources of the Nation.  Since its beginning, the USGS has been the primary federal agency responsible for assessing the quantity and quality of the nation’s surface water and groundwater.  The USGS has been active in a number of programs and investigations that involve the Upper Mississippi River Basin specifically.


The USGS participates in the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force.  The role of the Task Force is to provide executive level direction and support for coordinating the actions of participating organizations working on nutrient management within the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed.  It is chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency and has representation from four additional Federal agencies, ten State governments, and Tribal governments in the basin.  A key goal of the Task Force is to implement the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan 2008, which provides an overview of how federal agencies, states, and tribes are working together to take action to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico while protecting and restoring the human and natural resources of the Mississippi River Basin.

The Action Plan in 2008 identified USGS to lead or co-lead two activities. The USGS has the lead role to “…reduce the scientific uncertainties regarding the source, fate, and transport of nitrogen and phosphorus in the surface waters of the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin and to improve the accuracy of management tools and efficacy of management strategies for nutrient reduction.” As a co-lead with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USGS is tasked “to coordinate, consolidate, and improve access to data collected by State and Federal agencies on Gulf Hypoxia and Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin program activities and results.”


To accomplish these tasks, the USGS has used its water-quality models and a broad suite of USGS and other Federal and non-Federal monitoring data from 31 basin States to identify the most important sources of nutrients and the sub-watersheds delivering the majority of those nutrients from the Mississippi River Basin to the Gulf of Mexico. Partners and stakeholders such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in coordination with State and local agencies are using USGS information to target their resources in priority watersheds to manage nutrient runoff to rivers and streams.


Specifically, the models estimate the amounts of nutrients delivered from key nutrient sources and landscapes in the Mississippi River watershed. Delivery of nutrients from more than 800 watersheds to local rivers, streams, and lakes, and to more distant receiving waters such the northern Gulf of Mexico are estimated. Key nutrient sources assessed in the model include chemical fertilizers, animal manure, human wastewater, urban stormwater, and atmospheric deposition. A nationally scaled model for the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin was published in 2008, and a regional model for the Upper Mississippi River watershed is planned for release this year.


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 cooperative efforts 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 in rivers, streams, and groundwater within the basin.


For more than 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 Department of the Interior 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 over 15 years, UMESC has provided scientific and management leadership for the Long-term Resource Monitoring Program component of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Upper Mississippi Restoration-Environmental Management Program.  This monitoring program of water quality, fisheries, vegetation, land use, and other critical indicators of river health is the largest mainstem 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.  The USGS also supports EPA and states in their implementation of the National Aquatic Resource Surveys, particularly those focused on rivers and streams.  These surveys are producing assessments of the condition of rivers and streams throughout the Mississippi River basin and across the nation.  By focusing on periodic assessments of the resource at large, these surveys provide an important complement to the continuous sampling at selected locations proposed in the USGS sediment and nutrient monitoring network.


S. 2779 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 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. In 1995, the USGS had more than 200 locations for long-term sampling in the Basin; now, the network consists of about 74 locations, many of which are only sampled one year out of every four making it challenging to verify model outputs.  Within the last 10 years, there also has been a reduction in the number of locations that are sampled by States.   DOI is in the process of developing a plan to determine how many sampling stations are needed to provide needed data.; the report is expected to be published in 2011.


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 applies its expertise to the management of sediment and nutrients 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 or other Federal monitoring activities.


Section 106 of the bill provides for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a comprehensive assessment of water resources of the Upper Mississippi River Basin.  As drafted, funding for such a study would come from USGS  resources and could have the effect of reducing funding available for other USGS monitoring and assessment work in the basin.  If the NAS study remains in the bill, additional direction as to the goals and uses of the study should be provided.  


In summary, the proposed legislation describes a program consistent with current USGS activities to support protection of the Upper Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force and the recommendations of the 2008 Action Plan. We note that some of these conservation activities are being addressed by other ongoing programs.  Funding for the activities in S. 2779 is not included in the fiscal year 2011 President's Budget proposal and would remain subject to available resources.


Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, for providing the Department with the opportunity to present this statement.