Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other waters require a tougher approach: Donald Scavia

By Donald Scavia, Times Picayune
2 September 2011

This year’s Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, an area with oxygen so low it cannot support life, covered 6,800 square miles. Had it not been for Tropical Storm Don stirring the waters, it would have been larger.

The 100-mile-long Chesapeake Bay dead zone remains stubbornly large after decades of attention. Lake Erie’s dead zone, once improving, now is as large as it was when the lake was famously declared dead in the 1960s.

These huge dead zones are part of a pervasive problem that remains intractable under current policies — excess nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution from diffuse, mostly agricultural sources.

Dead zone causes and impacts have been well understood for decades; yet solutions have eluded administrations under both political parties. After two decades of supporting incentive-based, voluntary actions that did not achieve pollution reduction goals, the Environmental Protection Agency now requires Chesapeake Bay states to meet specific nutrient load targets.

Meanwhile, the same EPA continues to endorse voluntary approaches for the Mississippi Basin, even as a new U.S. Geological Survey report shows that the Mississippi River nutrients that fuel the Gulf dead zone continue to increase. And now the U.S. House of Representatives has introduced legislation to reauthorize research on algal blooms and dead zones.

But rather than focusing on achieving the goals of federal-state-tribal action plans, the bill calls for yet more committees to rehash the causes of dead zones, subjects that were thoroughly reassessed for the Gulf in 2008 and studied for decades in the Chesapeake.

The definition of insanity as repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results comes to mind.

It’s time to admit that incentive-based, voluntary actions have not worked and that new approaches are needed. Two paths are possible. Along one, EPA and state agencies use their authority to regulate businesses and sewage treatment plants to reduce nutrient pollution. At the same time, Congress gives EPA and states power to require agriculture to use better management practices to reduce pollution.

Along another path, Congress recognizes current Farm Bill programs and funding are failing to protect our nation’s waters and redirects significant commodity subsidies to conservation programs targeted to the most polluting regions.

The long history of failed efforts stands as proof that new approaches are needed. In 1995, after a decade of studies, 17 organizations petitioned EPA to tackle the problem at its source: the Mississippi Basin, which covers 41 percent of the lower 48 states. The EPA denied the petition and instead held meetings to further discuss the problem. Federal legislation in1998 created a task force and called for scientific analysis of dead zone causes, consequences and remedies and a plan to address them.

With the detailed, peer-reviewed integrated assessment as its basis, the task force published its first action plan — six years after the original petition — with a goal to reduce the dead zone to below 2,000 square miles by 2015. While a laudable goal, many worried the voluntary, incentive-based approach had no teeth.  

Toothless it was, because little progress has been made. We are closing in on 2015, and no one expects more than marginal, if any, progress toward the goal. 

Frustrated with inaction, other organizations petitioned EPA for action in 2003, 2004 and 2007, but those requests were also denied, and the task force simply called for another scientific assessment. The EPA Science Advisory Board’s 2008 reassessment validated findings of the original assessment, lamented lack of progress and called for even stronger targets and controls. The task force responded with yet another plan based on incentive-based, voluntary efforts. 

Exasperated with another toothless plan, and 13 years after the first petition, more than a dozen organizations petitioned EPA in 2008 to set nutrient standards in the Mississippi Basin. After three years, EPA denied this petition in July, suggesting progress was being made. Yet, while the task force met for its 21st time this month, the U.S. Geological Survey released its report showing that nitrate concentrations have increased in the lower river and at most other monitoring sites in the basin since the first action plan.

Either path outlined above is more sane than the one we’re on.


Donald Scavia is a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and environmental engineer who has studied coastal dead zones for 25 years. He led the first Gulf Dead Zone scientific assessment on behalf of the Clinton White House.