2018 has become a pivotal year for the long-standing problem of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone, commonly known as the “Dead Zone.”
The large area of low oxygen that forms off Louisiana’s coast each year is fueled by nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that flow down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. Nutrient runoff from farm fields, city sewers, and other facilities causes large algal blooms in offshore waters, triggering a process that lowers oxygen levels and can impact fish and other sea life, including commercially important species such as shrimp and red snapper. Last year’s hypoxic zone reached a record size.
Louisiana has worked with federal agencies and states upstream to reduce the hypoxic zone since 1998. Their cooperative action plan relies largely on federal programs and state nutrient reduction strategies, with a joint target of reducing nutrient loading to the Gulf by 20 percent by the year 2025. This target represents a commitment by all the parties involved, but is clearly of greatest concern for Louisiana — and the clock is ticking.
Several of the federal laws that are critical parts of this effort come before Congress this year in a convergence that has major implications for reducing Gulf hypoxia, and in particular for achieving the 20 percent reduction target:
The Farm Bill provides one of the action plan’s major tools, in particular the conservation programs that work with farmers and landowners to reduce runoff while conserving soil and improving productivity. These programs help the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s partnerships with other agencies and the private sector. The Farm Bill also funds research programs utilized by institutions like the LSU Agriculture Center. Cuts to the conservation and agricultural research provisions in the Farm Bill would constitute a major setback for the Gulf Hypoxia effort.
The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a recurring piece of legislation like the Farm Bill, is best known for funding navigation and flood control measures built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. WRDA also funds ecosystem restoration, protection for drinking water protection, and wastewater treatment. Where these activities are done in the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri River Basins, they can help achieve the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan’s goals.
The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act, initially co-authored by then U.S. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, provides scientific and policy support for the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force. Its reauthorization is pending in the House of Representatives.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has helped create scores of wildlife refuges, parks and other outdoor recreation projects that help improve water quality in the river basins that drain into the Gulf, is also up for reauthorization by Congress.
At the state level, Louisiana has a prime one-time opportunity. The Natural Resources Damage Assessment portion of the BP Settlement makes a specific designation of funds for “non-point source nutrient reduction,” meaning nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that reaches the Gulf. Louisiana is receiving $20 million for this purpose and could direct it to help reduce the Gulf Hypoxic Zone, if it chooses to do so.
The passage and implementation of these laws and programs are necessary for making progress on a water problem that has grown over decades, while delivering environmental and economic benefits for Louisiana, states upstream, and the country as a whole. This convergence of opportunities may not come again. We need our state officials and Congressional delegation to step up to the challenge.
Doug Daigle is the coordinator of the Louisiana Hypoxia Working Group, a monthly forum for agencies, researchers and stakeholders that meets on the Gulf hypoxia issue.