Dead zones still a threat in the Gulf

The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, LA; December 6, 2007

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We are not winning the battle against dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. A decade ago, a special task force pledged to reduce the zone. While the team of government experts and environmental researchers gave it their best shot, the zone managed to grow instead of shrink. The research was extensive enough, however, to lay the groundwork for involvement by nine states, several government agencies and two American Indian tribes. A promise was made that the dead zone would be significantly reduced by 2015. 

We are at the halfway mark. The growth of the zone continues and, while the effort is strong, the promise of reducing the zone by 2015 is no longer considered realistic. 

This year, the dead zone reached nearly 8,000 square miles, one of the largest in history. A dead zone is an area of depleted oxygen caused primarily by agriculture runoff. It flows down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya, bearing fertilizer and other chemicals, the most harmful of which is nitrogen. In the oxygen-depleted zones, fish flee and bottom-feeding marine life is killed. In ordinarily productive areas, it kills shrimp and speckled trout. Shrimpers must fish farther out. That pushes their expenses up. 

Researchers have called on states along the Mississippi River to enact strict water quality standards. Also, farmers have been urged to limit fertilizers on land near streams. 

But federal actions work against success. Federal money has been made available to farmers willing to set aside land for conservation, thus reducing the amount of fertilizer that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. But federal officials also have decided to offer farmers larger subsidies for planting, and using fertilizer, than for conserving. 

Now there is a new force at work. A major increase in corn production for ethanol is bringing additional farmland online. More than 15 million new acres of farmland have been devoted to corn this year. 

But doubt is still outweighing determination and optimism. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has studied dead zones since the 1980s. "I would say based upon past practice, I don’t have any great reason to think the action plan means ‘action,’" Boesch says. 

We are unwilling to accept that gloomy statement, because there has been some progress. USDA officials say nearly 4 million acres of farmland were taken out of production for wetlands or buffer zones between 2000 and 2006, and 18.3 million acres are under nutrient-management plans. 

There must be, however, more political will from all states, including Louisiana. Without it, researchers say the dead zone will persist, at the peril of the Gulf’s ecosystem. 

Louisiana should be leading the way. While many issues face Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal, he should list removal of dead zones as one of his major priorities.