Times-Picayune EDITORIAL: Dead zone dead end

Monday, June 23, 2008

Scientists expect to see the largest-ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this summer — 10,000 square miles — because spring flooding has sent more nutrient pollution than usual down the Mississippi River.

But even though the dead zone is breaking records, there’s no corresponding urgency behind efforts to address the underlying problem, agricultural runoff.
Nitrogen-based fertilizer that ends up in the Gulf fuels bumper crops of algae. When algae die and decompose, oxygen is depleted, killing bottom-dwelling marine life and chasing away shrimp and fish.

A new plan sets 2015 as the target date for reducing the dead zone to a quarter of its historic size. But it’s hard to see how that will happen when states have until 2013 to devise strategies for reducing nutrient runoff.

That’s exactly what states were asked to do back in 2001, when they were given a year to come up with ways to reduce runoff. None of them met that deadline. That could easily happen again, especially since no single federal agency is responsible for enforcing the 2013 deadline.

The 2008 farm bill did provide $8 billion in new conservation programs aimed at water quality, including subsidies and incentives for building wetland buffers between farms and streams. But rising commodity prices are driving farmers to put more land into production, not less.

The enormity of this year’s dead zone should make it clearer than ever that a patchwork approach that leaves it to states to figure out what to do is no answer. This problem is national in scope and the solution must be, too.