Halle Parker / Houma Today 24 January 2020

Representatives of several environmental groups shared updates Wednesday on projects aimed at shrinking the Gulf of Mexico’s annually recurring dead zone.

Led by coordinator Doug Daigle, the Louisiana Hypoxia Working Group provides a monthly forum for people to stay up-to-date on the efforts to reduce the amount of nutrients draining through the Mississippi River Basin.

Those nutrients, especially nitrogen, lead to the creation of the low-oxygen zone that has grown in size since 1991, causing marine animals caught inside to die or relocate.

Last year, the dead zone was measured spanning 6,952 square miles after it was disrupted by Hurricane Barry, though researchers expected the actual size was larger. Though it was smaller than predicted, the area was still 2.8 times larger than the goal set by the Hypoxia Task Force.

Though Louisiana’s contribution to the dead zone is smaller than states higher in the basin, Daigle noted that “everything helps” the task force toward its goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous delivered by 20% by 2025.

“It all adds up and … it’s the cumulative result of all the reductions in the basin that are what’s going to make a change,” he said. “Plus, the work helps local waterways, too.”

Andrew Barron, a Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program water resources coordinator, updated the group on the agency’s work to incentivize homeowners along Bayou Folse to fix their sewage systems which leak bacteria and nutrients that lower water quality.

In the group’s informal surveys, Barron said they’ve found that up to 80% of homeowners could have malfunctioning sewage treatment systems.

Barron said they’re also collecting baseline data to understand the water quality of Bayou Lafourche, which provides drinking water to three parishes, and look for “hot spots,” or areas lacking oxygen, to coordinate a similar program for those homeowners.

Under an agreement with the Barataria-Terrebonne program, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has begun offering more low-interest loans to its farmers to limit runoff.

Lacy Bellanger, a field technician for the Lafourche-Terrebonne Soil and Water Conservation District, said the district is working with sugarcane and livestock farmers to reduce the amount of nutrients coming from their operations.

For sugarcane farmers, that means encouraging them to apply for money to use more cover crops to limit erosion and less fertilizer that would just run off into bayous.

Bellanger said they’re working with the area’s cattle farmers to place fences around their properties to keep their cows from going into the bayous. Cows that drink or cool off directly in the bayou tend to also defecate there, adding harmful bacteria and nutrients.

Louisiana SeaGrant’s Nicole Lundberg, who also works with LSU’s AgCenter, discussed their work surveying fishermen about ways the state could help them adjust ahead of the potential construction and operation of large sediment diversions.

“We’re basically a sounding board,” she said.

Fishermen, particularly in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parish, have voiced strong opposition to the diversions. Lundberg said many fishermen have asked the state to buy them out of their businesses if they go ahead with the proposed diversions.

Daigle will provide updates to the Hypoxia Task Force at its next meeting in Washington D.C. in February as it continues working to implement its nutrient reduction plan, which has suffered due to lack of funding.

He said the public is welcome to come to the working group’s meetings, noting that they are held at Nicholls State, LSU and University of Louisiana-Lafayette.