Monday, June 12, 2023

The "Dead Zone"?

 The dead zone is an area with low oxygen levels, leading to the death of marine life. It is primarily caused by excessive nutrient runoff from Midwest farms, specifically from fertilizer use, which eventually reaches the Gulf through the Mississippi River.

 Scientists have released their 2023 forecast for the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, predicting it to be approximately 4,100 square miles this summer. Although larger than last year, it is still smaller than the average size.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses models and data from the U.S. Geological Survey to make annual forecasts for the dead zone. Although nitrate and phosphorus discharges in the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya River were below average, this season's forecast still exceeds the federal Hypoxia Task Force's goal of reducing the dead zone to 1,900 square miles or smaller by 2035. The average size of the dead zone over the past five years has been 4,280 square miles, more than double the target, and it has been consistently increasing in size over time.

Don Scavia, an emeritus professor at the University of Michigan involved in the forecast research, highlights the lack of progress in reducing the dead zone's size, suggesting that current efforts to mitigate nutrient runoff have not been effective. He criticizes the prioritization of industrial agriculture over water quality by federal and state agencies, as well as Congress.

NOAA attributes the larger forecasted size to lower river flow rates. Despite significant rainfall and flooding in the upper Midwest earlier in the spring, the discharge in May from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers was approximately 33% below the long-term average.

Lauren Salvato, policy and program director at the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, is optimistic about the projections and emphasizes that states are working diligently to meet their nutrient reduction goals. Many states within the Mississippi River basin have developed their own plans, in coordination with the Hypoxia Task Force, to address nutrient runoff.

Salvato acknowledges the positive impact of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has allocated $60 million over five years to the task force's action plan. Some states are utilizing their portion of the funding to implement sustainable farming practices, such as cover crops, while others are increasing staffing. However, she notes that the results of these efforts will take years, possibly decades, to measure effectively.

Although NOAA described this year's forecast as "below average," Matt Rota, senior policy director at Healthy Gulf, an environmental advocacy group, expresses disappointment and criticizes NOAA's portrayal as misleading. He highlights that the forecasted dead zone is twice the size of the reduction goal and emphasizes the need for enforceable regulatory actions or substantial federal investment to address the ongoing problem. While the funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a positive step, Rota argues that it falls far short of what is necessary to solve the issue.

Rota emphasizes that dead zone forecasts go beyond mere numbers; they have significant implications for the livelihoods of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast, particularly those dependent on fisheries that are threatened by the dead zone.

NOAA and its research partners conduct a monitoring survey of the dead zone each summer, and the results are typically released in early August.

References: NOAA,

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