Dead zone requires assistance

By Editorial, Houma Courier
10 August 2011

The forecasts this year were frightening.

The people who study the dead zone that develops each year in the Gulf of Mexico predicted that this summer’s could be the largest ever.

They said upriver flooding during the spring would increase the amount of agricultural runoff and other pollution in the Mississippi. Once those nutrients got deposited in the Gulf, the prediction was, they would drive a large growth of algae, a die-off of the algae and a resulting huge area of oxygen-depleted water.

The process was nothing new. It happens every year as warmer waters spur the growth, which is exacerbated by the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Luckily, the Gulf dead zone did not develop into the largest on record. But it did grow to 6,765 square miles. To put that in perspective, it is larger than the state of Connecticut.

The problem of pollutants washing into the river and ending up in the Gulf is one that has already had dire consequences. Vast areas each year of the Gulf are inaccessible to much of the life that would otherwise be there.

When the zone gets closer to shore, it forces fish and other creatures far out into the Gulf. And wherever the zone lurks, it plays havoc with a complex and fragile food chain. So far, the life in the Gulf has recovered every year and overcome the hardships presented by the dead zone.

If it continues to grow unabated, though, the consequences could increase along with it.

While the pollutants end up in one place, they come from areas stretched across much of our nation. The Mississippi itself borders 10 states. And its tributaries drain all of the central part of the U.S., meaning that fertilizer on a farm in Minnesota or South Dakota or Ohio eventually makes its way into the Gulf.

Because the cause of the problem is spread among so many states and because the result is so far away, relying on those states to voluntarily arrive at a solution is absurd.

The federal government needs to do more to discourage runoff from farms upstream and to help restore a more-healthy Gulf of Mexico.

Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency refused to institute a maximum on the amount of fertilizer that washes into the Mississippi. While that might not be the exact answer to the problem, the solution is certainly in the hands of the federal government.

We simply cannot expect Wisconsin or any of the other states to voluntarily institute policies that will be difficult to achieve.

The EPA or Congress must exert some leadership and start considering real action.

Every year carries the risk of a larger and larger dead zone.

Along with that come stress on the plants and animals that make the Gulf such a rich and productive fishery.

It is past time to address this problem at the only level where a solution is feasible.

Editorials represent the opinions of the newspaper, not of any individual.