Summit tackles ‘dead zone’

By Chris Kirkham
The Times-Picayune; June 18, 2008

As scientists predict the formation of the largest-ever "dead zone" disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, a slew of federal and state conservation officials held an annual meeting in New Orleans this week to address the growing — and elusive — ecological problem.
But with no targeted federal funding to address the perennial problem off Louisiana’s coast, the result of polluted river water cascading into the Gulf, the group’s meeting was mostly a formality. The more candid discussion came after the adjournment.
Reducing the size of the Gulf "dead zone," expected to grow to 10,000 square miles this summer, is a vast undertaking that relies on Mississippi River states as far afield as Minnesota and Louisiana to cut back on wastewater and fertilizer runoff into streams that feed the Mississippi River. Excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and cities upstream constantly flow into the Gulf, combining with summer heat to form unnatural algae blooms that then die and suck up oxygen vital for marine life.
The massive dead zone is being predicted this summer because more nutrients were funneled into the Gulf after this spring’s floods.
Shrimp and fish must then flee a Massachusetts-sized band of the Gulf, stretching from the mouth of the river west into Texas. Despite a 2001 pact meant to reduce the size of the dead zone, it has continued to grow. A new plan approved this year calls for significant reductions in the dead zone by 2015, asking for states to reduce harmful runoff into streams that feed the Mississippi River.
At a Tuesday gathering of several Mississippi River basin states after the morning’s formalities, several officials pointed out the practical challenges of addressing the problem through a state-by-state, piecemeal approach.
"I just have a concern that if we have this nebulous thing that’s hanging over us, and we’re all kind of doing our own thing but we don’t have a common thread we’ve laid out, we’re not going to be very far along in another five years," said Ken Brazil of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. "I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the point where you can say that if you spend ‘x’ amount of dollars you can get ‘x’ amount of reduction."
Under the new plan to address the dead zone, states are required to come up with strategies to reduce nutrient runoff by 2013 — two years before the 2015 deadline to reduce the dead zone to a quarter of its current size. The 2001 dead zone plan asked states to come up with similar plans within a year, but none did.
No single federal agency is enforcing that deadline, leaving states to coordinate pollution control on their own.
"Short of them coming up with blocks of federal money they allocate to every state to do a lot of stuff, how it plays out is largely up to us," said Doug Daigle, who coordinates plans for states along the Mississippi River below Tennessee.
The 2008 Farm Bill includes nearly $8 billion worth of new conservation programs meant to address water quality, including subsidies and incentives for farmers to build wetland buffers between farms and streams. But rising global commodity prices for products such as corn and wheat are becoming an incentive for farmers to plant more.
Wayne Anderson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency pointed out the need for swift action, as the clock ticks toward the 2015 endpoint.
"If we’re in the same place we were five years ago in terms of making real progress, then we’re not going to be in a good position to offset lawsuits, to convince the public we’re on the right track," he said.
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Chris Kirkham can be reached at or (504) 826-3786.