Dead-zone problem needs real solution

Daily; June 13, 2008

It has been more than seven years since a special task force pledged to reduce the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to a quarter of its size by 2015. That goal is no longer realistic.
We seem to be moving away from a solution rather than toward one. The dead zone is growing steadily. In 2006, it covered almost 6,700 square miles. Last year, it reached nearly 8,000 square miles. This year, researchers expect the dead zone to grow to 10,084 square miles – the largest in almost a quarter century.
The zone is created by soil erosion, runoff from farms along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, urban runoff and dumping of sewage into the river. These elements create hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the water. In the oxygen-depleted zones, fish flee, and bottom-feeding marine life is killed.
In ordinarily productive areas, it kills off shrimp and speckled trout. Shrimpers must fish farther out. That pushes their expenses up, particularly during this time of soaring fuel prices.
The effort to deal with dead zones has failed largely because the incentive for farmers has been too small. The Farm Bill of 1985 required that farmers who wanted to receive federal funding had to do something about soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. The problem was cut by almost 40 percent over a 10-year period. Then it came to a virtual standstill. The federal government decided to offer farmers larger subsidies for planting and using fertilizer than for conserving and sending less fertilizer into the Gulf. Only $75 million was spent on conservation during a five-year period, while the federal spending on crop subsidies totaled $30 billion.
Another factor is the major increase in corn production for ethanol. It is bringing more farmland online.
A study by environmental groups, including the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Gulf Restoration Network, shows that the five major commodity crops receive billions of dollars each year, while nearly 75 percent of applications for voluntary conservation assistance go unfunded. As a result, the report says, 1.7 billion tons of topsoil erode off agricultural fields nationwide, polluting America’s waters and fisheries with sediment and millions of pounds of fertilizer and pesticides.
Last year, a spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture said Louisiana farmers are doing a good job in conserving their lands. The problem will have to be solved at the federal level. Incentives for conservation must be strengthened and soil-conservation rules must be enforced.
The fishing industry is extremely important to the state’s economy, but our fishermen have suffered severely – not only from dead zones, but also from hurricanes, low prices and foreign imports. Finding a solution to the dead-zone problem would be one important step toward assuring that the industry remains viable.