Mississippi to Mexico

1/23/02, The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network); The American Communications Foundation

Nancy Rabalais is watching the Gulf of Mexico suffocate. She’s the world’s foremost expert on the dying section of the Gulf near the Mississippi. According to Rabalais, if you were scuba diving in the Gulf fifty years ago, you would have seen tons of organisms, from fish to crabs, shrimp and snails. But today, aside from a few fish near the surface, all the other organisms are gone. That’s because the explosion of algae growth sucks up all the oxygen in the region’s most important fisheries. As a result, organisms living in the Gulf are literally suffocated from a lack of oxygen in the water.

Scientists now understand that the lack of oxygen is related to high amounts of nitrogen in the water. Since 1950, farmers have drastically expanded their use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. In the past, there was a buffer of wetlands between the farmland and the river. But because most of the nation’s wetlands were drained to create more farmland, all the farm fertilizer now finds its way into the Mississippi, and eventually into the Gulf.

The problem with all that nitrogen in the Gulf is that it encourages algae growth. The algae consumes all the oxygen in the water, making it impossible for other organisms to survive. According to a new report from Ohio State University, the only way to save the Gulf is to restore the wetlands. Ohio State University professor William Mitsch says that had wetlands remained, they would have been able to convert the nitrates from the fertilizer into atmospheric nitrogen, which is harmless.

In 1998, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked Mitsch to come up with a plan to save the suffocating Gulf. Mitsch’s strategy focuses on restoring tens of millions of acres of wetlands and forests to the banks of the Mississippi. Mitsch estimates the project could cost up to $26 billion. While Mitsch admits that is an expensive undertaking, he points out the Everglades restoration project in Florida is costing $8 billion and only involves 1.4 million acres of land.

Mitsch warns that if the Gulf continues to receive this much nitrogen, it could have dire implications for the fishing industry, the ecosystem, and the surrounding economies. If the wetlands and forests are restored, Mitsch says it will take several years before the Gulf shows signs of improvement, but he is confident the Gulf can be saved.

William Mitsch: Director
Olentangy River Wetland Research Park
465A Kottman Hall
2021 Coffey Rd
Columbus, OH 43210-1085
Phone: (614) 292-9774

Nancy Rabalais
LUMCON – Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium
8124 Hwy. 56
Chauvin, LA 70344
Phone: (504) 851-2836

William Mitsch’s bio is available on the Ohio State University Web site.

Nancy Rabalais’ bio is available on the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium Web site.

Ohio State University’s Olentangy River Wetland Research Park is one of the nation’s largest wetland research facilities

This links to background from OSU on Mitsch’s Mississippi River basin research.

The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium coordinates marine research in Louisiana.

NOAA report on the oxygen problem in the Gulf of Mexico.

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