EDITORIAL: It’s not just our dead zone

August 04, 2007; TIMES PICAYUNE

Nearly two-thirds of the coastal United States is threatened by the same low-oxygen conditions that occur off Louisiana’s shore every summer and form the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

That’s the conclusion of a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, and those findings should lend urgency to efforts to fight the underlying cause: nutrient pollution.

The Gulf Coast dead zone, which can reach the size of Connecticut, is caused by algae that bloom in profusion and die, sucking oxygen out of the water as they decompose. Those conditions kill bottom-dwelling marine life and chase away fish.

The bumper crops of algae are triggered in large part by nitrogen-based fertilizer that runs off farmland into the Mississippi River and ends up in the Gulf.

But little has been done to reduce nutrient pollution. A multi-state pact to shrink the Gulf dead zone to a quarter of its historic size by 2015 relies largely on voluntary efforts to reduce nutrient pollution. That approach has been ineffective.

In fact, this year’s dead zone is one of the largest on record, coinciding with a boom in corn production to meet ethanol production demands. Scientists are now warning that the changes in Gulf ecology might become permanent.

That danger should be enough to spur meaningful efforts to reduce nitrogen runoff. But evidence of hypoxia in coastal estuaries further bolster the case for reducing this form of pollution.

Researchers with NOAA and the University of Maryland‘s Center for Environmental Science found that 65 percent of the estuaries they studied were affected by excess nutrients — 80 percent of the total coastal acreage.

The study rated estuaries in the mid-Atlantic region as the most susceptible to nutrient pollution, mainly because of population density.

The report calls for greater dialogue among state and national policymakers and more consistent standards for collecting data. But talk and data-gathering isn’t going to keep nutrients out of estuaries. The nation needs to come to grips with what is clearly a widespread problem and take real action to solve it.