The 'Dead Zone': You're Paying for It in More Ways Than One

No, not the Stephen King novel. It's no work of fiction, but a growing horror just the same. Every spring, polluted waters from the Mississippi watershed drain into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing a feast of nitrates for algae, which literally take up all of the available oxygen in the process, killing any bottom-feeding sealife and driving away any other critters capable of moving, e.g. commercially attractive fish and seafood. The "dead zone" grows every year, and is now the size of New Jersey (and I will mightily refrain from NJ jokes). For the tech-minded out there, the oxygen-depletion is known as hypoxia, and the algae takeover of waterways (it also happens in freshwater lakes, streams, etc.) is eutrophication. {For a good technical explanation of the "dead zone" process, go here; for a non-tech/kid-friendly interactive multimedia presentation, try this from the Science Museum of Minnesota.)

In recovering from Katrina and Rita, the Gulf fishing industry also has an ever-larger "dead zone" to contend with, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The dead zone overlaps an area known as the Fertile Fisheries Crescent -- the core of the Gulf's $800 million fishing industry and also prime habitat for red snapper, tuna and other commercially valuable fisheries. No dollar amount has been fixed to the toll the dead zone has taken on those fisheries, but scientists say its impact is undeniable.

Shrimp production declined 23 percent, or almost 20 million pounds annually, when the zone sharply expanded between 1985 to 1998, according to a study by National Marine Fisheries Service biologists. A study last year by Duke University said fish and shrimp outside the zone's boundaries also may suffer from the effects of low oxygen, which impedes reproduction and growth among certain fish.

And the latest study, from the Environmental Working Group, reports that "the vast majority [almost 80 percent] of fertilizer pollution comes from a relatively small area of heavily subsidized cropland along the Mississippi and its tributaries where taxpayer-funded commodity spending overwhelms water quality related conservation spending by more than 500 to 1."

Yep, you're paying for the gunk to go into the river, you're paying to clean it up, and you're paying the higher prices for Gulf fish.

The Chicago Tribune was the first to report on the study, last week, given the local link: "Counties that represent 15 percent of the Mississippi River basin, which stretches from Montana to western Pennsylvania, account for 80 percent of the spring surge of fertilizer pollution that washes into the rive.... Among the counties cited in the study are some of the biggest corn-producing counties in the nation, including McLean, LaSalle and Iroquois in Illinois."

"The central finding is that not much of the Mississippi River basin accounts for most of the nitrogen fertilizer runoff," the Trib quotes EWG president Ken Cook. "That makes the problem look very much more solvable than it was before." He suggests that a small percentage of the land in the most heavily polluting counties be restored into wetlands or buffer strips, so that much of the nitrogen pollution from fertilizer could be filtered before it reached the Mississippi.

Don't expect a national debate on the proposal, because only a handful of news outlets -- primarily in those areas mentioned in the EWG report -- have bothered to carry anything on it. Voluntary measures to control the dead zone have already been found inadequate, the Times-Picayune story says.

As researchers gather in New Orleans next week to take stock of the problem, the 2001 action plan for shrinking the dead zone could face major revisions. Signed by nine states, the federal government and two American Indian tribes, the plan calls for a reduction by 2015 in the size of the low-oxygen, or hypoxic, zone to 1,930 square miles.

One-third of the way to that target date, the dead zone has averaged more than 6,000 square miles over the past five years, said Nancy Rabalais with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, known as LUMCON.

That's 20 percent greater than the 5,000-square-mile average since 1985.

"Certainly there's no evidence the problem is being mitigated. The hypoxic zone has not decreased over the last decade or five years," said Alan Lewitus, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer who manages the agency's hypoxia program. "There has to be a greater effort if we hope to meet that goal" of 1,930 square miles by 2015.

Obviously, up-river farmers don't have exactly the same viewpoint as the down-river fishing folk, and a growing coterie of eco-types and politicos is getting into the debate. It's a national issue that deserves a national forum. Indeed, it's becoming an international issue as well. Such dead zones are being seen wherever there is growing use of chemical fertilizer as developing countries mimic Western practices. Rabalais told the Times-Picayune:

A lot of the agricultural business is driven by the world economy, and there's all sorts of issues related to imports, exports and futures that drive what the modern agribusiness does.... Somewhere there's got to be a balance, and it's beyond the political boundary of the Mississippi River watershed.