EDITORIAL: No life in dead zone fight

The Times-Picayune; March 01, 2008


A revised plan to shrink the Gulf of Mexico dead zone by 2015 will not revive the moribund effort to cure this ecological disaster; in fact, critics say that the new version of the plan is weaker than the one first adopted seven years ago.
That reflects a worrisome lack of urgency. Last summer, the area of low oxygen off Louisiana’s coast was nearly 8,000 square miles, the third-highest total on record. Researchers warn that if something isn’t done soon, changes in Gulf ecology could become permanent.
The original plan, adopted by 10 states and a large number of federal agencies in 2001, called for states along the Mississippi River to come up with strategies in one year to reduce nutrient pollution in the river. That goal was not met.
The revised plan keeps the 2015 deadline, but it simply calls for states to devise solutions "as soon as possible, but no later than 2013." If states wait until 2013, though, that means they would have to deliver results in just two years, which is an unrealistic and probably meaningless timetable.
Although the dead zone forms off Louisiana’s coast, it is a multi-state issue. The vast area of lifeless water is caused by nutrients — mainly nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer — that enter the river from the heartland and end up in the Gulf. There, the nutrients trigger massive algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water, killing bottom-dwelling organisms and chasing shrimp and fish away.
Research by Louisiana State University shows that last year the river had its highest level of nitrogen in 15 years. But the new plan did not include targets recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board, which called for 40 percent to 45 percent reductions in the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that enter the river.
It’s no mystery why the dead zone persists. The approach that has been used is ineffective: it puts no one in charge, provides no federal funding and relies mainly on voluntary efforts by states to reduce nutrient pollution.
Nearly 4 million acres of farmland have been taken out of production through conservation incentives, and another 18.3 million acres are covered by nutrient management plans. But that hasn’t kept up with the boom in ethanol that has resulted in 15 million new acres of farmland being planted with corn in 2007 compared to 2006.
"We know the scientific basics of what has to be done," said John Kraeuter, a marine sciences professor from Rutgers who provided written comments on the revised plan. "But the management ‘science’ has not kept pace . . . Put somebody in charge."
That’s what must happen, and soon. Louisiana’s dead zone is a national issue in itself, but beyond that, two-thirds of the coastal United States is threatened by the same conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We’ve wasted seven years; we shouldn’t waste any more.