Dead Zone measurement cancelled for first time in 26 years

Largest single source of Dead Zone pollution is ag runoff

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Nutrient mismanagement by Iowa farmers has created the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a lifeless area the size of Connecticut.

DES MOINES – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Friday it has cancelled the annual measurement of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in 26 years.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution flowing down the Mississippi River causes the Gulf Dead Zone to form each summer. The pollution feeds massive algae growth, which in turn causes the depletion of almost all of the oxygen from the zone. Sea life must swim away from these areas or suffocate and die.

The announcement comes during a year when toxic algae blooms have been especially prevalent in the Gulf region, particularly in Southern Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency earlier this summer.

The NOAA required researchers this year to use a different boat than they have in their past 29 of 30 Dead Zone measuring trips as a condition for funding. Due to mechanical issues aboard the new vessel, the measurement trip has been cancelled.

“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 (GRN). “Requiring researchers to use NOAA boats has jeopardized long-term measurements of toxic pollution in the Gulf.”

Between 2011 and 2015, the average size of the dead zone was about 5,500 square miles, nearly three times the 1,900-square-mile goal set by the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, which is co-chaired by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

According to NOAA estimates, the 2016 Dead Zone was expected to measure approximately 5,898 square miles, approximately the size of Connecticut.

“While we will not have an official measurement for 2016, there is no question that serious pollution problems continue to persist in the Gulf and the states in the Mississippi River Basin – including Iowa,” said Iowa Environmental Council Water Program Director Susan Heathcote.

Several pollution sources contribute to the Dead Zone, including discharges from wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, but the largest single source of Dead Zone-causing pollution has been identified as runoff from agricultural land.

GRN and members of the Mississippi River Collaborative – including the Iowa Environmental Council – have been pushing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states in the Mississippi River Basin to set numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in order to help restore clean water in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

“In order to address a pollution problem, we need to set enforceable pollution limits,” said Rota. “The Gulf Hypoxia Task Force has been meeting for almost two decades, focusing on voluntary reduction methods. That obviously has not been successful.”

“We all need to be accountable for clean water,” said Heathcote. “We must implement basic soil and water conservation practices on all farms to keep soil and fertilizer on the land and out of the water, and we must reduce nutrient pollution from urban and industrial sources. Making these changes will improve water quality here at home in Iowa as well as all along the Mississippi River to the Gulf.”

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