EDITORIAL: Children of the cornBy Experts say that it will take decades of concerted action to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a huge area of low oxygen that forms off the coast of Louisiana each summer, killing bottom-dwelling species and chasing away shrimp and fish.
Times Picayune, Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Experts say that it will take decades of concerted action to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a huge area of low oxygen that forms off the coast of Louisiana each summer, killing bottom-dwelling species and chasing away shrimp and fish.
But so far, there’s been very little action on this vital environmental issue — 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.
That pact relied on mostly voluntary measures to reduce the amount of nitrogen washed into the river from farmland, and it’s been mostly ineffective. The dead zone is growing, measuring 6,600 square miles last year with an even larger area predicted for this year. Researchers are warning that permanent changes to the Gulf’s ecology could result.
The federal hypoxia task force that’s meeting in New Orleans this week needs to push for a more aggressive approach, especially in light of the boom in corn production for ethanol. That’s resulted in 12.1 million more acres of corn being planted this year. By contrast, from 2000 to 2006, only about 2.7 million acres of farmland were turned into wetlands or altered to prevent fertilizer runoff.
Critics say that the task force’s focus has been on refining science instead of taking action, and that needs to change.
It has been well-established that the main cause of the dead zone is nutrient pollution, mainly nitrogen that runs off farmland into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf. The same nitrogen-based fertilizers that make crops grow in the Midwest fuel algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that die and decompose, sucking oxygen out of the water.
Experts appointed by the Environmental Protection Agency have produced a draft report for the task force that confirms those earlier findings on causes of low oxygen.
It’s discouraging that while studies continue so little has actually been done to encourage farmers to use fertilizer in a more environmentally responsible manner. A study by the Environmental Working Group found that in some counties, $500 goes into subsidies that could increase fertilizer use for every dollar spent on conservation programs. That’s quite an imbalance, and it’s hardly surprising that the dead zone has flourished under such policies.
The federal government has addressed the dead zone issue in a piecemeal fashion, with programs that span a number of agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Designating a lead agency and giving it the authority and resources to take concrete action would be a productive step.
So far, the federal government has not addressed the dead zone with any sense of urgency. That’s nothing new for Louisiana — our coastal erosion crisis hasn’t been treated as a national environmental issue either. But both of them are, and it’s past time for the government to start acting like it.