Algal blooms up and down the Gulf Coast have killed scores of fish, sea turtles and dolphins this year. At the same time, research on hypoxia and nutrient runoff is in a holding pattern until Congress can reconvene and vote on a bill that would continue funding under the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA).
“Right now, the future of the program after December is unclear unless Congress reauthorizes it,” says Sally Flis, agronomist at The Fertilizer Institute (TFI). With other industry partners, TFI backs the bill and other federal programs that support scientific research on water quality.
The partners say research into hypoxia and other water quality issues is important to farmers, as it ensures science is factored into any conclusions and potential solutions. Without science, lawmakers might assume farm operations bear the sole responsibility for improving water quality, which could lead to restrictive regulations limiting cropping decisions and livestock management practices.
Achieving the research funding is paramount, given the scope of the hypoxia problem. In 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium reported the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone is now 8,776 square miles—an area close to the size of New Jersey. That’s four times the goal size of 1,930 square miles.
NOAA reports an “unusually persistent, harmful algal bloom (red tide) currently affects portions of the coasts of Florida. It has persisted on the southwest coast since October 2017 and, more recently, spread to the Panhandle and the east coast of Florida.”
A short-lived algal bloom also occurred in Texas this past September. NOAA says red tides occur less frequently and are less persistent in Texas than in Florida, but have increased in recent years.
Flis says TFI and its partners realize reducing fertilizer use can be part of the solution to algal blooms, but other factors must be evaluated.
“Fertilizer application tends to get the brunt of the blame for these nutrient problems,” she notes. “Programs like 4R Nutrient Stewardship are based on science, which needs more funding through programs like this one, to study how all fertilizer management practices—the right source, rate, timing and placement—can lead to better water quality outcomes.”