Midwest flooding may worsen dead zone

By DEE DEE THURSTON, Managing Editor
Sunday, June 29, 2008, Houma Courier
HOUMA — Flooding in the Midwest is swelling the Mississippi River, sending increased water through Louisiana and into the Gulf of Mexico — a phenomenon that has left researchers confident that their dire dead-zone predictions are right on track.
Scientists have predicted that this year’s dead zone — an area of the Gulf of Mexico that lacks enough oxygen to support marine life — will be the largest ever.
The river’s flooding will help ensure that by adding more agricultural runoff and fresh water to the Gulf, said Nancy Rabalais, director of the Cocodrie-based Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and a leading dead-zone researcher.
Especially disconcerting is news that researchers have detected low-oxygen levels in the Chandeleur Sound, a miles-wide swath of water between St. Bernard Parish and the Candeleur Islands off the state’s eastern coast.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before," said Rabalais, a pioneer in the field of dead-zone research since 1985.
A conference call with other researchers, she said, was scheduled for Friday to discuss new finding.
The dead zone is caused when spring rains wash fertilizer from northern farmland into the Mississippi River. That nutrient-rich water winds up in the Gulf, where the fertilizer that once helped grow corn in Kansas or wheat in Missouri also helps oxygen-hungry algae bloom.
The algae sucks up all the oxygen that fish and other marine life need to survive. The organisms that can flee survive, and the ones that can’t die.
The dead zone emerges in summer and lasts through early fall. Scientists, who map its size each year, predict that this year’s dead zone will be the largest ever at 10,084 square miles — an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts and approximately 2,000 miles larger than last year.
Actual numbers will be available after the Cocodrie-based research team takes its annual sampling trip, set for July 21.
In the meantime, Congress aims to help researchers find ways of reversing the growing trend by way of legislation.
Dead-zone researchers present their annual findings to the Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rabalais said.
The new legislation, basically a set of amendments to a 1998 bill, would require a similar report be submitted to Congress. U.S. Sens. Mary Landreiu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., endorse the effort to expand research and strategies to stop its spread.
"We in Louisiana know that the dead zone is a real problem that affects, not only our ecology, but also our local seafood and fishing industries," Vitter said in a written statement.
This legislation will expand research programs and promote strategies to mitigate and control hypoxia and associated harmful algal blooms, which can damage our commercially valuable fish, shrimp and oyster industries, Vitter said.
The bill also creates a dedicated program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and calls for regional and national plans to tackle the problem.
In addition, NOAA is awarding LUMCON $879,000 to further its dead-zone research.
"This grant will not only help in our understanding of our water systems in Louisiana, but will also aid our commercial fisheries industry," Landrieu said in a news release. "It is important that we protect the living resources and aquatic systems that make up key parts of our regional ecosystem and serve as the foundation for so much of our economy."