Revised plan to curb ‘dead zone’ wins nod but doubts renewed about reaching goal

By Chris Kirkham
The Times-Picayune; March 01, 2008

A cadre of state and federal officials signed off on a revised plan to limit the Gulf of Mexico’s oxygen-starved "dead zone" in Chicago on Friday, amid criticism from the scientific community that it lacks the teeth required to control growth of the lifeless band of ocean water.
In 2001, states along the Mississippi River and a slew of federal agencies pledged to reduce the Gulf’s dead zone to a quarter of its size by 2015. But at the halfway point of reaching that goal, the annual disturbance that forms 12 miles off Louisiana’s coast every summer is still growing, and could delay some coastal restoration efforts intended to rebuild Louisiana’s wetlands.
Last summer the "dead zone" measured nearly 8,000 square miles, stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Texas border, one of the largest sizes ever recorded. Fertilizer runoff and wastewater from farms and towns in the nation’s heartland funnel billions of pounds of excess nutrients into the Mississippi River, and eventually the Gulf, every year. The nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, combine with sunlight and summer heat to fuel explosive algae blooms that choke off the oxygen supply vital for marine life.
Fish and shrimp must escape to survive; smaller organisms and bottom-feeders perish.
No targeted federal funding has materialized to address the dead zone, so states are left to address the problem through a series of existing, mostly voluntary programs intended to halt the flow of nutrients. Although the disappearing wetlands at New Orleans’ doorstep need silt from Mississippi River diversion projects, some researchers point out that excess nutrients in the river could spark similar "dead zones" in the coastal marshes if river water is redirected there.
"All of this stuff is inextricably linked, all of these things have to be linked for coastal restoration in Louisiana," said Garret Graves, Louisiana’s new coastal czar who heads Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Office of Coastal Activities.
The revised plan sticks to the goal of reducing the dead zone to about 2,000 square miles by 2015, but acknowledges that realizing that goal is unlikely. It calls on states to come up with plans to reduce nutrients by 2013, particularly major agricultural producers such as Illinois and Iowa. Similar calls to action in the past have not resulted in states taking the initiative.
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Chris Kirkham can be reached at or (504) 826-3786.