In 12 years, minimal progress combating dead zone

By Robert Zullo, Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 12:00 p.m., HOUMA COURIER

HOUMA — Though the area of oxygen-depleted water this year in the Gulf of Mexico is half as big as predicted, scientists say that doesn’t foreshadow a shrinking trend.

And while a task force formed 12 years ago has made little headway in combating the “dead zone” that develops off the Louisiana coast each year, researchers and advocates are hopeful President Barack Obama’s administration will bring new focus — and more dollars — to an issue that has languished for years in political limbo.

Scientists say the dead-zone effect, called hypoxia, is fueled by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, largely from fertilizers, that flows down the Mississippi River.

The river’s basin drains about 41 percent of the land mass occupied by the lower 48 states, including all the runoff from their farms, parking lots, factories and sewage systems.

The extra nutrients that wind up in the Gulf feed massive algae blooms that sink, decompose and suck up most of the oxygen supply in the water, forcing marine life in the area to either flee or die.

Earlier this month, scientists led by Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium Director Nancy Rabalais measured the dead zone at 3,000 square miles, stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi River to just west of Sabine Lake on the Louisiana-Texas border.

That’s about half the size of Connecticut.

Models had predicted an area of between 7,450 and 8,456 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey, at its smallest.

The reduced size this year is believed to be the result of weather patterns that put more oxygen into the water, not an indication that efforts to reduce the man-made causes of the phenomenon are causing the dead zone to shrink.

“The smaller-than-expected area of hypoxia appears to be related to short-term weather patterns before measurements were taken, not a reduction in the underlying cause, excessive nutrient runoff,” said Robert Magnien, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist. “The smaller area measured by this one cruise, therefore, does not represent a trend and in no way diminishes the need for a harder look at efforts to reduce nutrient runoff.”


In 1997 the Gulf of Mexico-Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force, a group headed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, was founded to study hypoxia and reduce the size of the Gulf dead zone.

But in the ensuing 12 years, the group has made no apparent progress in reducing the flow of material that spew into the Gulf each year, according to a scientist who spent more than a decade with the group.

“The situation has not gotten any closer to a solution,” said Len Bahr, a Louisiana ecologist who was the governor’s appointee to the task force for 11 years before retiring last year.

A lack of federal money and opposition from farm lobbyists have hamstrung the task force since its inception, Bahr added.

In some cases, the government has actually worked against the task force, he said, citing huge subsidies to corn growers for ethanol as an example.

Groups like the National Corn Growers Association, which represents thousands of farmers in dozens of states, contend there’s no way to tell how much of the hypoxia-causing nutrients flowing into the Gulf come from agricultural sources and how much is the result of sewage and storm water runoff.

“People are so quick to blame one thing and not look at all the causes,” said Ken Colombini, a spokesman for the association, which published a report last month challenging the assertion that agricultural runoff is largely responsible for the dead zone. And a 2008 EPA report says discharge from sewage and industry may be more responsible for hypoxia-causing nutrients than previously thought.

Bahr and other scientists, however, disagree.

“The science is pretty clear on it, and I don’t think there’s much doubt what the principal source is,” Bahr said.

From the outset, the EPA assured the farm lobby and others upstream of the Gulf Coast that the task force wouldn’t have any regulatory authority, he added. The task force also opted to pursue a more abstract goal of reducing the size of the dead zone rather than reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphates that flow into the Gulf from the Mississippi River. “The scientists were pretty much all saying that the goal should be to reduce the total concentrations of nitrates and fertilizer that pass by New Orleans,” Bahr said. “They started off with a very weak goal and no significant money has ever been authorized or appropriated to reduce nitrogen.”


The difficulty of determining the long-term effects of the dead zone on marine life, scientists say, may make it harder to get money and resources to solve the problem.

“They have never found the smoking gun that fishery production has declined in Louisiana as a result of hypoxia,” Bahr said.

The Gulf dead zone is seasonal, and its size and intensity fluctuate year to year based on complex interactions among weather, tides, nutrient flows and other factors.

“It’s a very difficult thing to predict. It’s not a simple issue,” Bahr said. The long-term effects on fish populations of a giant area of water that can’t support aquatic life are still unclear.

“I know that it could get larger, it could more severe,” Rabalais said of the dead zone. “It can get severe enough that the fish that really need to use the area are excluded for long periods of time.”

Some familiar with the issue, however, see hypoxia as a ticking bomb with the potential to severely threaten the $2.8 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry.

“The Gulf fishery’s such an important resource,” said Doug Daigle, who sits on a task force committee for the lower Mississippi basin. “We don’t want to wait until there’s a fishery crash”


Scientists do know that dead zones can come back to life.

Rabalais pointed to the Black Sea, into which flows the Danube, Europe’s second-largest river. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and a subsequent reduction in agricultural production, the dead zone in the Black Sea, once one of the largest in the world, gradually shrank.

“It does show that if you reduce the nutrients, you can alleviate the low-oxygen problem,” Rabalais said, though she noted the reversal came with a drastic loss in agricultural production.

An action plan approved by the task force in 2001 and revised in 2008 to reduce the nutrients in waterways flowing into the Mississippi basin has never been implemented. Daigle said the task force was told in 2007 there would be no new money for efforts to curb hypoxia in the Gulf.

A similar oxygen-depleted area in the Chesapeake Bay, however, won hundreds of millions in federal money.

Rabalais said the Mississippi River states lack the cohesiveness to win the same kind of concessions from Washington.

“That’s what the task force should be encouraging,” she said.

Daigle said that over 12 years the task force has established a framework he hopes will finally be used under Obama.

Prodding states to enforce the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, which requires monitoring of water bodies and mandates states address polluted waterways, could go a long way toward dealing with hypoxia if the money is targeted in certain areas, he added.

“The only thing that’s going to change this process is to have an infusion of federal investment,” Daigle said. “If that doesn’t happen, then nothing’s going to change.”

In a written statement Suzanne Schwartz, director of the EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, appeared to echo that hope.

The task force will discuss “game-changing programs” to “turn the tide on the damage done to Gulf ecosystems due to hypoxia” at a meeting in September, Schwartz said. “Both voluntary and regulatory approaches … will be needed to address the size and severity of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone,” she wrote.