WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department is pouring $320 million into efforts to improve water quality in the Mississippi River basin.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in a videotaped speech Thursday that he is creating the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative. The initiative will fund efforts in 12 states along the 2,350-mile long Mississippi River.
Over four years, the funding will be used to improve water quality and remove pollutants.
Vilsack's message was delivered by video to the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, which is meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. The task force, with members from five federal agencies and 10 state agencies, was formed in 1997 to develop a plan to reduce the size of the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The dead zone is an area in the gulf that lacks oxygen for much of the summer and as a result cannot support sea life. It varies in size each year, but its primary cause is excess nutrients from farm fertilizer runoff in the Mississippi River.
The nutrients cause algae blooms and after the algae dies, bacteria on the bottom of the sea eat the algae, removing vital oxygen from the water.
The size of the dead zone in 2009 was 3,000 square miles, one of the smallest on record. But scientists and environmental groups who are worried about the gulf's ecosystem have advocated doing more to limit the chemicals entering the Mississippi, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.
Vilsack said the effort was "a bold new approach" for USDA, which has already funded efforts to improve water quality in the Mississippi.
"We've already seen how conservation practices can improve water quality within the basin," Vilsack said in the video. " ... Today's announcement will accelerate our investments."
Craig Cox, the Midwest president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization, said the increased funding along with better enforcement of conservation compliance "will go a long way to solving the dead zone problem."
Vilsack said USDA plans to partner with farmers to improve conservation and prevent water pollution.
The funding will go to efforts in 12 states that are either along the Mississippi River or have tributaries that feed into it: Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.