EDITORIAL: On our teamTimes-Picayune; January 8, 2008
Louisianians understand how vital wetlands are: They serve as a buffer against storm surge and are nurseries for marine life and habitat for waterfowl. The loss of coastal wetlands is a crisis for this state.
But Louisiana’s environmental well-being also depends on wetlands far outside its boundaries — – in the Midwestern farm states where they can act as filters to prevent nutrient pollution from entering the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Those nutrients, which come mainly from nitrogen-based fertilizer, are the cause of another environmental crisis for Louisiana, the huge dead zone that forms off the coast every summer.
Louisiana State and Ohio State universities have been working together since 2003 to reduce nutrient pollution, and that kind of partnership is important in addressing this multi-state issue.
"You have this problem in the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re the cause of it," said William Mitsch, a professor of environment and natural resources who leads the Ohio State research team.
He’s right, and it will take the efforts of states like Ohio and others to reduce the nitrogen load in the river and shrink the dead zone. Despite a 2001 agreement to do exactly that, billions of excess pounds of nitrogen continue to come down the river and fuel the massive algae blooms that suck oxygen out of the water when they die and decompose. The dead zone last year was one of the largest on record, 8,000 square miles.
Ohio State built model wetlands to show farmers how they could do the same. But the boom in ethanol production has made farmers more eager to plant corn than to create wetlands. "We’ve kind of gone backwards," Mr. Mitsch said.
The voluntary measures called for in the reduction plan aren’t working, and the state and federal task force that oversees the agreement clearly needs to take a more aggressive approach.
When it comes to understanding the problem, though, Louisiana is not alone. Researchers like those at Ohio State who are working on ways to address the dead zone are important allies.