2 August 2018
There are at least two ways of thinking about the dead zone that develops each summer in the Gulf of Mexico.
The first, and most optimistic, is for us to tell ourselves that the dead zone is less than half the size this year than what researchers predicted.
The other way, though, is to remember that it is still roughly the size of Delaware.
The dead zone is the result of pollution running off of agricultural land upstream and washing into the Mississippi River. It is then carried downstream and dumped into the Gulf, where it causes huge algae growths. The vegetation then dies and decomposes, drawing the oxygen out of the water and leaving the area largely uninhabitable.
It might be tempting to think the diminished size of this year’s zone is a promising sign. But the researchers who have measured it each year said it was likely caused by wind patterns rather than any concerted effort to lessen the pollution.
While officials have long known about the phenomenon, there has been little progress is fighting it.
“Although the area is small this year, we should not think that the low-oxygen problem in the Gulf of Mexico is solved,” said Nancy Rabalais, a scientist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie. “We are not close to the goal size for this hypoxic area, and continued efforts at nutrient mitigation are needed.”
What is needed is federal action to decrease the contamination that finds its way into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. But the help has been slow in coming. And although the Mississippi River-Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force has set a goal of reducing the dead zone’s size in the coming years, there isn’t much federal strength behind the effort.
Louisiana and Texas, though, where the problem is evident off our coasts, are left with the fallout each year even though the impetus for it takes place far away from us.
Ideally, the states upstream would take action to get farmers to either reduce their use of these chemicals or require that they do a better job in keeping them out of the river. But that, too, has proven a difficult task.
Rabalais is right to insist that the dead zone isn’t disappearing, even though this year’s is smaller than the forecast.
For now, though, that might be the best news available.
Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, not of any individual.