EDITORIAL: A more aggressive strategy

Times Picayune; December 10, 2007


The dead zone is supposed to be shrinking. If all were going as planned, the oxygen-depleted band of water in the Gulf of Mexico would be significantly smaller today than it was a decade ago.

It isn’t. Despite a 6-year-old agreement to reduce nitrogen in the Mississippi River and shrink the dead zone to 1,930 square miles by 2015, it is larger than ever.

The dead zone covered 6,000 square miles in 1997. This year it had grown to almost 8,000 square miles. 

The reduction plan agreed to in 2001 by nine states, multiple federal agencies and two Native American tribes clearly isn’t working. Something’s got to change — and quickly — or the Gulf may not recover from the damage.

The state and federal task force charged with overseeing the agreement recently updated the plan. The group is calling for states along the Mississippi River to toughen water quality standards and is encouraging farmers to limit fertilizers on land near feeder streams.

Unless there is some force behind the effort — a carrot or a stick — it’s unlikely that these measures will work, though. To date the agreement has relied on mostly voluntary measures to reduce the amount of nitrogen washed into the river from farmland, and clearly that hasn’t produced results.

The main cause of the dead zone is nutrient pollution, mainly nitrogen that runs off farmland into the Mississippi River and eventually makes its way to the Gulf.

The effects on marine life can be devastating. "We’re now starting to find impacts on the shrimp catch," one researcher said. Those are scary words, considering that shrimp and other sea life are a major export for Louisiana — not to mention extremely important in local cuisine.

At the moment, corn is the biggest enemy of marine life.

The increase in corn production for ethanol — a practice that the government has encouraged — is a cause of great concern. This year 15 million additional acres of corn were planted. As the acreage expands, more and more fertilizer is washed into the river.

By contrast, from 2000 to 2006, only about 4 million acres of farmland were turned into wetlands or taken out of production. Another 18.3 million acres of farmland are under nutrient management plans, USDA officials say.

But a study by the Environmental Working Group found that in some counties, $500 goes into subsidies to increase fertilizer use for every dollar spent on conservation programs. That’s a damaging imbalance.

Another problem is the fractured nature of the reduction plan. Programs included in the agreement span multiple agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One agency ought to be given overarching authority and resources it needs to make the plan work.

The revised plan hasn’t changed the goal of getting the dead zone below 2,000 acres by 2015, but it acknowledges that it may not be possible. And some researchers worry that there is a lack of urgency in the new plan.

That must change. The health of the Gulf is of vital importance, not only to us but to the nation as a whole.