Gulf dead zone could be largest ever

By Maya Rodriguez
Eyewitness News 4WWL, WWLTV.COM; June 16, 2008

This year’s Dead Zone, an area that has little marine life because of a lack of oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico, could become the largest one ever recorded.

A growing dead zone in the Gulf may have a lot to do with a rising Mississippi River. The DEQ said flooding in the Midwest — the same flooding that caused the Bonnet Carre Spillway to open this spring — may be causing the dead zone to get bigger.

That’s because the main cause of dead zones around the world is agricultural runoff, like fertilizers which are loaded with nitrogen and phosphate. And when those come down the river and mix in with the warm Gulf waters, a dead zone is born, reducing oxygen in the water and killing marine life.

“We know we’re over-feeding the Gulf, so this is an action plan to reduce the over-feeding,” the EPA’s Benjamin Grumbles said. “Put the system on a diet."

But the new plan has its share of critics.

"Most of it is paper work; most of it is planning” said Cynthia Sarthou, a Gulf Restoration Network member. “In our opinion, they’ve been planning for 10 years."

Sarthou said the plan does little to force other states along the Mississippi River to reduce their fertilizer runoff.

"What we need is strong action in upriver states to reduce the nutrients coming into the river,” Sarthou said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality agrees, saying the first version of the action plan, created in 2001, did little to reduce the size of the dead zone.

"I think we need to do more, quicker,” Lou Buatt, with the Louisiana DEQ, said. “The Gulf of Mexico is an important asset to the nation. It deserves national attention and we need to do more."

But the Federal EPA, which heads up the Dead Zone Task Force, said any solution will have to come from a partnership among the states.

“It’s not something the federal government is going to dictate,” Grumbles said. “We just all need to work together, recognize there’s a problem and accelerate our efforts."

Scientists won’t know how large this year’s dead zone is until they finish their studies of it later this summer. The task force is looking into several ideas to help reduce fertilizer runoff in the Gulf.

One plan would use the runoff to help restore the wetlands in south Louisiana.