National Politics of Eutrophication and Hypoxia

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Eutrophication and hypoxia issues have become visibly present in American politics on a national scale since the 1970's, a direct result of realizing the eutrophication problem in the Chesapeake Bay. The Clean Water Act is the largest piece of legislation addressing water pollution including nitrogen. More acts also address eutrophication: the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The knowledge and experience of the Chesapeake Bay movement gave rise to organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Program Office and the Mississippi River/ Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Task Force.

The data regarding the economic quantification of causes and effects of increasing nutrient loading in the Mississippi River basin has not always been complete, but experiences like the Chesapeake obviously point to a negative impact. Worldwide studies have documented severe economic degradation due to hypoxia (such as Baden et. al., 1990). The latest Clinton/Gore Clean Water Action Plan, directs more funding and enforcement resources to support the legislation mentioned above and operates on a watershed basis. Most importantly, the Plan calls for setting nutrient budgets.

Support for regulatory action against hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico comes from a broad spectrum of environmental lobbying groups, the fishing industry, and downstream (nutrient receiving) state and local governments. Opposition to any nutrient loading regulation comes from farm bureaus, the fertilizer industry, and upstream (nutrient loading) state governments. The pro-agribusiness lobby claims that the government backed studies are proceeding with a preconceived conclusion that hypoxia is caused by agricultural runoff and having measurable negative economic effects. Currently these two sides are fighting over the interpretation of non-conclusive economic data. One such study is the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Assessment. A discussion of individual pieces of legislation, programs, and organizations is through this link. Or, click on the NEXT button for a discussion of soil conservation districts and the local politics of hypoxia.

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