Toxic Algae Persists, but No “Official” Measurement of Dead Zone This Year

On July 29, NOAA announced cancellation of the annual measurement of the Gulf Coast Dead Zone for the first time in 27 years, despite issuing a dire projection of its size earlier in the summer.

Since 1985, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium has conducted an annual measurement of the size of the Dead Zone, an area of hypoxia that forms annually in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution flowing down the Mississippi River. It causes the depletion of nearly all oxygen, and sea life must swim away or suffocate and die.

This year, NOAA stipulated that LUMCON must use a NOAA research boat as a condition of funding the expedition, a boat which then broke down and forced the cancellation of the trip. This malfunction and subsequent cancellation comes only a year after the EPA’s Gulf Hypoxia Task Force admitted it was nowhere near its 2015 goal of reducing the Dead Zone to less than 2,000 mi2. Instead, early estimates indicated the 2016 Dead Zone would have been even bigger than last year at approximately 6,824 mi2.

“This is yet another example of how state and federal agencies do not prioritize cleaning up the Dead Zone,” said Matt Rota, Senior Policy Director for Gulf Restoration Network. “The Dead Zone is an ecological emergency and a disgrace to environmental policy makers.”

The effects of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are being felt across the nation this summer, most recently with the ecological disaster in the Everglades. Similar pollution has been responsible for contamination of Des Moines and Toledo drinking water supplies, the annual closure of beaches across the nation, countless human illnesses, and even the deaths of dogs that swim in it.

GRN and members of the Mississippi River Collaborative have been pushing EPA and the states to set pollution limits for nitrogen and phosphorus necessary to restore clean water in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Mississippi River Basin. 

The pollution causing the Dead Zone comes from various sources, from urban run-off to the discharges from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities. However, agriculture has been identified as the largest source of Dead Zone-causing pollution in Mississippi River states all the way down to the Gulf. Still, there are virtually no standards that the agriculture industry must meet to address these problems.

“We all need to be accountable for clean water,” said Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “Changes are needed to get basic soil and water conservation practices on all farms to keep soil and fertilizer on the land and out of the water.”

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