Dead Zone Cruise

Dead Zone Proof of Massive Gap in Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act is a massive and wonderful piece of legislation that drastically improved water quality in the United States and stands as a beacon of light in the dark world of ongoing water pollution.

But it has a huge gap.

Once a year, scientists board a boat in the Gulf of Mexico and measure the water’s oxygen levels in order to gauge the devastation that US water pollution does to marine life. They measure in the Gulf because that’s where freshwater – and all of its pollutants – from 32 of our 50 states winds up.

Standard Dead Zone headlines and articles are modified annually to include the year’s current data, and the same message is broadcast to millions of deaf ears via stock headlines:

  • “The 2019 Dead Zone is the eighth-largest on record, wreaking havoc on the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries.”
  • “The 2019 Dead Zone is nearly six times the size of Rhode Island, dooming all marine life in the area.”
  • “The 2019 Dead Zone is 20% larger than the rolling 5-year average used by the US EPA and NOAA.”

Those are facts. But they’re not the story.

The story is that a significant amount of water pollution in 32 states is “nonpoint,” or unregulated, and the Dead Zone is an annual reminder of one fact:  The Clean Water Act does not cover a lot of pollution.

Billions of dollars are spent annually to prevent nonpoint pollution by offering voluntary, incentive-based programs to urge industrial farming operations to be more responsible. Billions of dollars are spent annually to upgrade sewage treatment plants to filter out more and more point pollution.

But billions are not spent on regulation or enforcement of nonpoint pollution because regulation of nonpoint pollution barely exists.

Almost a decade ago, Mississippi River Collaborative (MRC) petitioned – and eventually sued – US EPA for their negligence in protecting human health and the environment by allowing states to regulate at will – or at whim – nonpoint pollution. That EPA strategy did not work then, and it does not work now. States are not getting it done.

And so it is another year, the Gulf has another massive Dead Zone, and Americans have another reminder that the Clean Water Act is not enough.

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