Cuts would jeopardize dead zone research

By Nikki Buskey, Houma Today
24 April 2013

Nancy Rabalais, executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, explains the workings of an oxygen meter Wednesday at the LUMCON W. J. DeFelice Marine Center in Cocodrie.  Chris Heller/Staff

A long-running project aimed at mapping the annual dead zone that forms off Louisiana’s coast each summer could be in jeopardy because of federal budget cuts. 

This will be the 29th summer scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium marine research facility in Cocodrie will head out into the Gulf to study and map the size of the low-to-no oxygen zone, a phenomenon known as hypoxia, caused by nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River. 

But Nancy Rabalais, director of LUMCON and one of the nation’s leading dead zone researchers, said there’s a possibility it could be the last trip. Rabalais received a letter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month warning that the grant that supports the research could be partially cut or ended because of the sequestration, severe budget cuts enacted by Congress that took effect beginning this year. The grant also supports an annual forecast prepared by LSU researchers of the size of the dead zone.

The research program’s budget already underwent a significant cut last year, Rabalais added. 

NOAA officials could not say specifically whether the dead zone grant would be cut. But David Miller, a NOAA spokesman, said NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, which funds the research, is slated for a $5.9 million increase in the fiscal year 2014 budget request.  

Cutting the long-running research program would be “a huge setback,” said Doug Daigle, coordinator for the Louisiana Hypoxia Working Group. There are two other research cruises that study Gulf hypoxia, but neither could fill the void left by the annual LUMCON effort.  

“That mid-summer cruise is really irreplaceable,” Daigle said. “And we know they’re not going to replace it with more cruises.”  

The dead zone forms off Louisiana and Texas each summer. It is caused by excess nutrients from human activities such as large-scale agriculture being dumped into the Gulf from the Mississippi River. The nutrients, coupled with the warm summer sun, trigger an explosion of algae growth that sinks and decomposes, consuming most of the life-giving oxygen in the water. Oxygen-starved waters create an inhospitable area that force organisms to flee or die. This creates large areas of dead sea that give the zone its name.  

The largest dead zone was recorded in 2002. It measured 8,484 square miles.  

“The dead zone is a mess,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “These high nutrient loads are coming down the Mississippi River system from the upper basin and wreaking havoc on our Gulf. In addition, the BP spill compounded the hypoxic conditions offshore Louisiana. All of this is happening in the same area that is one of the most productive fishing grounds in the nation. It’s not a good combination and certainly has adverse affects on our recreational and commercial fishermen.”   

Matt Rota, director of science and water policy with the Gulf Restoration Network, said cutting the mapping program could have significant negative impacts because programs created to attempt to curb the dead zone have set their goals based on reducing the zone’s size.   

The largest effort, the federal and state-run Gulf of Mexico-Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force, was founded in 1997 to study the phenomenon and reduce its size. That effort aimed to reduce the zone to about 5,000 square kilometers, or 1,900 square miles. 

Efforts to curb the dead zone have already moved at a glacial pace over the years, and cutting the research program could only add additional impediments, environmental advocates said.     

Graves said Louisiana has been working through the task force to develop and implement a coordinated strategy to manage this issue through nutrient reduction, water quality monitoring, point source assimilation and river diversions.

“This strategy needs to be done in coordination with up-river initiatives to reduce the nutrient runoff into the river systems,” Graves said.     

Richard Raynie, chief scientist with the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the 12 state members of the hypoxia task force are developing state-specific strategies to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the Mississippi River, with a resulting goal of reducing the size of the dead zone.     

“Dr. Rabalais’ efforts to map the size of the so-called dead zone in the Gulf have been a critical tool for the hypoxia task force to monitor its overall progress and improve understanding of the effects of hypoxia on resources in the Gulf,” Raynie said. “We will continue these efforts within the basin to reduce nutrient loads in each state through other funding sources.”

Graves agreed that LUMCON’s work has been important in efforts to curb the size of the zone.     

“LUMCON and Dr. Rabalais have done good work helping to define the size, scope and conditions of the annual dead zone. Their work helps us to measure progress,” Graves said. “There seems to be an effort in (Washington), D.C., to cut higher profile programs rather than cutting the fat. This appears to be an example of that strategy.”    

Staff Writer Nikki Buskey can be reached at 448-7636 or