Experts say more is needed to stop dead zone

By Nikki Buskey, Houma Courier
7 August 2011

This year’s dead zone, an area of oxygen-starved water that forms annually off the Louisiana coast, is smaller than expected.

But scientists and environmentalists say that’s an anomaly. They predict it will continue growing because little is done to control the agricultural pollution that fuels it.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency denied a request from environmental groups to cap the amount of fertilizer that washes off Mississippi River Valley farms and into the Mississippi River and devise a cleanup plan for the Gulf.

That pollution feeds the dead zone.

Matt Rota, science and water-policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group, said the decision is disappointing considering the dead zone has doubled in size since measurements began in 1985.

In its letter to environmental groups, the EPA said it would be too costly and take too much time.

This year’s dead zone was expected to be the biggest ever due to Mississippi River flooding, but Tropical Storm Don mixed up Gulf waters, reducing the areas of low oxygen. This year’s dead zone is 6,765 square miles, an area bigger than Connecticut.

“This maybe isn’t the biggest dead zone, but it’s still well above the goal,” Rota said. “The dead zone is detrimental to Gulf sea life and the coastal residents’ way of life, and yet EPA continues to rely on the states to do things they have failed to do for well over a decade.”

The dead zone forms off Louisiana and Texas each summer. The nutrients, coupled with the warm summer sun, triggers an explosion of algae growth that sinks and decomposes, consuming most of the life-giving oxygen in the water.

Oxygen-starved waters create an inhospitable area that force organisms, especially bottom-feeders such as crabs and shrimp, to flee or die. This creates large areas of “dead” sea that give the zone its name.

The largest dead zone was recorded in 2002. It measured 8,484 square miles.

The Gulf of Mexico-Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force, a group headed by the federal EPA, was founded in 1997 to study the phenomenon and reduce its size.

But environmentalists and scientists say the task force has made almost no progress in its 15-year history because it is hampered by a lack of congressional money and a clear and aggressive plan to regulate and reduce nutrient pollution in the river.

“The plan does have a goal of reducing the dead zone to (about 1,900 square miles) but then there’s an asterisk,” Rota said. “They basically say, ‘We’ll try and reduce the size of the dead zone, but this is really hard, and we probably won’t be able to do it.’ ”

The task force primarily relies on voluntary programs that ask farmers to reduce fertilizer runoff.

Rota said those programs are important but do not go far enough. The EPA needs to use its authority under the Clean Water Acts to set limits and police the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that winds up in the river.

Doug Daigle, coordinator of the Lower Mississippi River Sub-basin Committee on Hypoxia, a government-sponsored committee that seeks solutions to the dead-zone problem, said it’s difficult to determine the appropriate level of nutrients.

Money has been the biggest problem for the dead-zone-reduction program, he added. While it was recommended the program should receive $1.5 billion over five years to aid its efforts, that money was never received.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up a $320 million program to help farmers block fertilizer runoff. Daigle said some projects are under way, and he hopes the money won’t get cut.

“We know we’re not going to be seeing any large appropriations, so we just hope it survives,” he said.

Len Bahr, editor of the coastal blog LaCoastPost and a former task-force member, said he believes coastal advocates and those battling the dead zone should work together.

“While we’re trying to get federal help for dealing with one issue, we should have been getting money for another,” Bahr said.

Both Daigle and Rota agree that the only current viable source for money to combat the dead zone in the current recession is the BP oil-spill fines the state hopes to use on coastal-restoration projects.

“We’ve broached the idea that some portions of the BP money should be directed up river” for projects to help combat the dead zone in the Gulf,” Daigle said.

“The BP fund may be our one source of funding,” Daigle said. “Without that, I don’t know where we’ll get our money in the near future.”

If nothing is done to address the dead zone, the low-to-no oxygen area could continue to grow and pose a serious threat to “one of the last productive wild fisheries in the U.S.,” Daigle said.

“We’ve been fortunate that there hasn’t been a fisheries crash yet,” Daigle added. “You want to keep that coastal resource healthy.

“The folks down in the coastal parishes are already facing tremendous challenges.”

Staff Writer Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205 or