Giving New Life To The Dead Zone

By John Senn

Dead zone. It sounds like something out of a zombie movie, and I wish it was. But dead zones, areas of a water body where aquatic life cannot survive because of low oxygen levels, are very real. Dead zones are generally caused by significant nutrient pollution, and are primarily a problem for bays, lakes and coastal waters since they receive excess nutrients, usually nitrogen and phosphorous, from upstream sources. The largest dead zone in the United States – about 6,500 square miles, or roughly the size of Massachusetts – is in the Gulf of Mexico and occurs every summer because of nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River Basin.

Because the dead zone in the Gulf is such a complex problem, addressing it requires a comprehensive strategy on the part of five federal agencies, the states that comprise the Mississippi River basin, farmers, university scientists and many others. Last week, the group charged with giving new life to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone – the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force – met in Memphis, Tennessee.

This meeting wasn’t your ordinary government get together. Jane Hardisty, who works on agricultural issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Indiana, gave a great demonstration – think back to high school earth science classes — about the benefits of leaving soil untilled. Davis Minton, who’s been farming his family’s land in Missouri since he was a boy, talked about how wetlands mitigation can help restore the environment and increase profits. And Suzy Friedman from Environmental Defense Fund discussed how evaluating and adapting land management practices can reduce nutrient pollution.

But my favorite part of the meeting was a trip to Stovall Farms in Clarksdale, Mississippi to see a host of nutrient pollution reduction strategies in action. Stovall Farms, which is also the birthplace of the blues musician Muddy Waters, is a roughly 6,000-acre farm that produces corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. A number of innovative, cost-effective projects across Stovall Farms, which were partially-funded through EPA’s Section 319 Nonpoint Source Program, are designed to more efficiently use water and prevent nutrient-laden soil from leaving the farm.

Addressing nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin is a tremendous task, but I was heartened by all the hard work that I heard about and saw last week. I’m hopeful that all this great work will someday mean that you’ll only hear the term “dead zone” in zombie movies.

About the author: John Senn is the deputy communications director in EPA’s Office of Water in Washington, D.C. Previously, John was a press officer in EPA’s New York City regional office handling issues related to water and Superfund cleanups. He has also worked in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and is a member of the Agency’s emergency response team.

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