Scientists have released their 2023 forecast for the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico predicting it will be about 4,100 square miles this summer. It’s much bigger than last year, but still smaller than average.
The dead zone is a hypoxic area where low oxygen can kill fish and other marine life. It is caused by excessive nutrient runoff, largely from fertilizers used on agricultural fields in the Midwest, which ends up in the Mississippi River and flows south to the Gulf.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses models and data from the US Geological Survey to predict the size of the dead zone each year. Data from river and stream meters showed that discharges of nitrate and phosphorus were below average in the Mississippi River and the Atchafalaya River, which divides in southern Louisiana.
While some see this season’s forecast as good news, it’s still well above the Federal Hypoxia Task Force’s goal of reducing the dead zone to 1,900 square miles or less by 2035. The five-year average size of the area is of 4,280 square miles, more than double that goal and has trended mostly larger over time.
Don Scavia is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and leads one of several research groups that collaborate with the federal government on annual forecasts.
“The lack of a downtrend in the dead zone demonstrates that current efforts to reduce those loads have not been effective,” he said. “Clearly, federal and state agencies and Congress continue to prioritize industrial agriculture over water quality.”
A NOAA press release says the results are due to the river’s lower flow rate. Despite much rain and flooding in the upper Midwest earlier this spring, May discharge into the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers was about 33 percent below the long-term average.
Lauren Salvato, director of policies and programs at the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, said she was confident about the projections. “It’s certainly positive,” she said. “Our states are working hard and want to meet their nutrient reduction goals.”
Most states within the Mississippi River Basin have developed their own plans, in concert with the Hypoxia Task Force, to reduce nutrient runoff.
Salvato said new funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law will help advance these goals. The task force received $60 million for its action plan, $12 million annually for five years. Some states are using their share of the funds to institute more sustainable agricultural practices, such as cover crops, while others are beefing up their workforces, Salvato said.
“It’s monumental,” he said. “We’ve never authorized this program. We’ve never had this kind of money go into nutrient reduction strategies.”
However, he said the results of these new efforts won’t be measurable for years, perhaps even decades.
NOAA’s press release on this year’s forecast advertised it as “below average.” But Matt Rota, senior policy director at environmental advocacy group Healthy Gulf, was disappointed with the results and called NOAA’s description “misleading.”
“That’s twice the size of the lens,” he said. “It’s too big. It’s not smaller than anything.”
He said reducing the size of the dead zone will require enforceable regulatory action rather than the opt-in programs most states have relied on to reduce farm runoff or billions of dollars in federal investment. Funding the bipartisan infrastructure bill is a great start, Rota said, but it’s nowhere near enough to solve the current problem.
And he said the dead zone predictions aren’t just a numbers game. The livelihoods of thousands of people on the Gulf Coast are tied to fishing, which is endangered by the dead zone.
“It’s not just about these numbers and these patterns, but how do we create a livable ecosystem?” he said.
NOAA and its research partners conduct a monitoring survey of the dead zone each summer, with results released in early August.
This story is a product of Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Deskan independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in collaboration with Report for Americafunded by the Walton Family Foundation.
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