Coalition Report

Alicia Lloyd, Clean Water Policy Coordinator,
Missouri Coalition for the Environment

Dead Zone Too Big To Measure?

Despite rampant nutrient pollution and toxic algae outbreaks in the Midwest and off the coast of Florida this summer, for the first time in 30 years, there will not be an official 2016 measurement of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1985, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and researchers from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCOM) have completed the annual cruise to assess the waters within the hypoxic zone. This year, an alternative NOAA ship was assigned to the trip and, noting mechanical issues with the new vessel, NOAA announced the trip’s cancellation late in July.

The Dead Zone refers to the coastal area adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico in which a lack of oxygen makes waters uninhabitable for fish and other aquatic life. The low oxygen conditions are the result of nutrient pollution flowing down the Mississippi off farmland and from sewer treatment facilities, septic systems, and industry. Nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, spur algal blooms and the eventual depletion of oxygen in the Zone.

While pollution from other sources are contributors, agriculture has been shown to be the leading source of nutrients entering the Mississippi River basin. Chemical fertilizers and spray-applied manure from factory farm waste is carried off the landscape after rain events and spring snowmelt. The nutrient-laden waters flow into nearby creeks and streams making their way to bigger rivers and eventually, the Mississippi.

The status of the Dead Zone in the Gulf is reflective of nutrient pollution throughout the basin. Toxic algal blooms threaten drinking water sources across the country. Oxygen-depleted waters disrupt freshwater ecosystems in the rivers, streams, and lakes we fish, swim, and play in.

The cancelled Dead Zone measurement trip this year leaves many questioning governmental priorities related to addressing this massive problem. Early July estimates derived from computer models suggested the Dead Zone likely grew again this year from 2015 to over 6,800 square miles – roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. The Mississippi River / Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Task Force was created to address the nutrient problem with the original goal of reducing the Zone’s size to 1,950 square miles by 2015 – a goal that was extended two decades to 2035 last year as the Dead Zone continues to grow at exponential rates.

The vitality of our natural resources depends on an active and engaged public. Through community reporting, cleanup, and preservation, we can ensure that the rivers and streams throughout Missouri and the Mississippi River basin stay safe and beautiful!