The Gulf Is Dead! Long Live the Gulf!

This week brought news that the Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone,” an area of water with very low oxygen that forms each year, was the second biggest on record.  That’s not good news for the critters of the Gulf, which find it hard to breathe in water missing its oxygen.

The Dead Zone occurs when the Mississippi River carries water rich in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the Gulf, algae feed on these nutrients and grow like crazy, then die and decompose, robbing the water of dissolved oxygen in the process.  Nitrogen and phosphorus come from a variety of sources, including wastewater treatment plants, animal feedlots, and agricultural fertilization.  These low oxygen, or hypoxic, areas happen in places all over the world, but the Gulf has one of the very biggest.   

This year, the early signs pointed to a Dead Zone on steroids – according to researchers, the amount of nitrogen going to the Gulf reached its highest level in nearly 40 years, in part due to the increased production of corn for ethanol.  So, the fact that the Dead Zone was not the largest it has ever been was actually a bit of good news -- it wasn’t as big as it had been predicted to be because, according to the scientists who have studied this phenomenon for years, Hurricane Dolly churned up the water in the Gulf enough to avoid breaking a dubious record.   

Record or not, it was still a honkin’ big Dead Zone this year – 7,988 square miles, or about the size of Massachusetts.  (The researchers who measure this thing often compare its size to that of various states; I prefer something more aquatic – it’s bigger than Lake Ontario – or silly – by my math, it’s about 47 million times the size of the huge Twister mat reportedly constructed by some North Dakota students trying to break a world record.)  And it’s many times bigger than the target size – about 1,900 square miles by 2015 – set out in a 2001 “Action Plan” developed by a bevy of state and federal policy makers. 

The Dead Zone is an enormous annual reminder of the failure of this plan and of government efforts to rein in nutrient pollution.  Just last October, the National Research Council reported that the Environmental Protection Agency missed opportunities to use its legal authority to address pollution problems in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico by establishing nutrient pollution standards and cleanup plans for the watershed. 

Today, NRDC partnered with a number of organizations, primarily ones based in the Mississippi Basin, to petition EPA to follow through with policies to respond to the National Research Council report.   

It’s essential that EPA take the requested steps, and quickly.  But that’s just one needed element of a meaningful plan to kill the Dead Zone.  If the feds really intend to meet their goal of shrinking the hypoxic area, they need to get serious about a number of nutrient pollution policies:

  • As I’ve written about here and here, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers should stop their efforts to make it easier – in the name of implementing a couple of Supreme Court decisions – to pollute or destroy small streams and wetlands.  Guess what?  Those water bodies happen to be particularly good at removing nutrients before they get into larger watersheds.
  • EPA should ratchet down on the nutrient pollution that comes from wastewater treatment plants, which do not now have federal standards for such pollution.  Though the agency has been asked to set nutrient pollution standards repeatedly over the last decade and a half, it has yet to act.
  • EPA should also abandon its current plan to weaken federal rules governing pollution from animal factories.  The agency proposed a rule in 2006 that will make it easier for these industrial operations to avoid obtaining pollution control permits, and the administration is poised to finalize the rule any day.
  • The government must make reducing agricultural fertilizer runoff a much more central priority.  In particular, we need to invest in policies that reward farmers who conserve wetlands and other pollution buffers, and we need to implement nutrient control strategies that must be used where producers are producing biofuels in accordance with the renewable fuel standard adopted last year.  Right now, as discussed by my colleague, Nathanael Greene, our biofuels policy is on a collision course with water quality concerns, and we need to change that course right away. 

Until our leaders take nutrient pollution seriously and address it comprehensively, preventing the formation of an enormous Dead Zone next year and for years to come may depend on the possible appearance of a well-timed hurricane.  I think we can all agree that hoping for one natural disaster to counteract another is something short of good public policy.