Staff Editorial | The Advocate
22 June 2022
The giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is one of our summer rituals, and the good news is that this year’s version is expected to be a bit smaller than 2021’s.
But the bad news is that the 2022 dead zone will be bigger than the state of Connecticut, and hundreds of millions in federal spending have not put us on a path to reduce the area of low-oxygen water that forms every year.
The dead zone stems from nutrients carried down the Mississippi River and deposited in the Gulf.
The hypoxia, which is the scientific term for water containing less than 2 parts per million of oxygen, begins when the nutrients flow into the river from farms and septic tanks and sewage treatment plants. The river’s fresh water creates a layer over the saltier Gulf water where blooms of algae grow and die, sinking to the bottom and using up oxygen as they decompose.
This year’s version is expected to cover 5,364 square miles off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas by the end of July. That estimate is derived from springtime measurements taken by the U.S. Geological Survey of nutrients throughout the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River basins.
In 2001, a task force working to reduce the size of the dead zone wanted to see it cut to 1,900 square miles by 2015. In 2016, the task force pushed back the date to 2035. But we’re hardly making progress toward that goal despite millions spent to reduce nutrient runoff from agriculture into the river. Those efforts have included planting grassy strips around farmland to capture runoff and training farmers to use modern techniques like GPS to target fertilizer more precisely.
“No reductions in the nitrate loading from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico have occurred in the past few decades, the interval since the formation of the Hypoxia Action Plan environmental goal,” said LSU researchers Eugene Turner and Nancy Rabalais in a report on the ongoing problem.
“No matter what people say they are doing in the watershed, it is either not enough or not the right stuff,” agreed Don Scavia, a researcher at the University of Michigan.
The Environmental Protection Agency is spending $60 million from the 2021 infrastructure law on state nutrient reduction strategies, and Louisiana’s Hypoxia Working Group will allocate nearly $10 million in BP settlement money for wetland conservation projects aimed at reducing nutrients.
But it’s hard to be optimistic.
“The mention of $60 million of new actions is pretty laughable when compared to the billions being spent each year on the farm bill,” Scavia said. “It is clear that USDA programs are not enough and with EPA’s inability (or reluctance) to regulate the agricultural industry like other industries, there is little hope this problem will ever be solved.”
While we appreciate the need for improved practices on farms as part of the runoff problem, phrases like “industrial agriculture” are pejorative and not reflective of the realities of feeding this nation and the world. We’ve seen the impact of the disruptions — not to mention, famine in many poorer countries — caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, because it is, like the Mississippi valley, a worldwide breadbasket. Large-scale agriculture is a necessity and more productivity per acre of farmland is in the best interests of this country and the world.
There is one known way to knock down the size of the annual dead zones: hurricanes, which stir up the water. But after two devastating tropical storm seasons, we’re not praying for any of that.