10/29/14

How do you solve a problem like the dead zone?

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone was the topic of discussion by government officials and non-profit organization representatives from across the Mississippi River Basin in Alton, IL last week. Our own Michael Brennan and Lisa Merrifield were among those in the room and wrote in to share their impressions of the meeting.

But first, Michael brings us up to speed on the reason for the meeting and the group behind it all.  
“The hypoxic zone is a seasonal phenomenon in the Gulf region, where sudden outbreaks in algal communities spurred on by excess nitrogen and phosphorus lead to depleted oxygen levels in an area the size of New Jersey. Since it is rain events that wash excess nutrients into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf, the size of the hypoxic zone varies year-to-year. However, the average annual size has remained unchanged for decades. 

“State and federal agencies have been working towards a solution to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone for decades,” he added. “The Hypoxia Task Force, a group consisting of federal and state representatives, was established in 1997 to oversee a unified regional effort to reduce the size of the dead zone. Last week’s event was the group’s fall meeting.”

The day-long meeting touched on a variety of issues, including updates on ongoing efforts to understand the dynamics of the dead zone and to reduce the amount of nutrients carried from farm fields and city streets in stormwater runoff.

“The task force has been doing a lot of modeling exercises to determine the size and spread of the hypoxic zone,” said Lisa. “They are starting to think beyond the basics about how to more accurately characterize the impact of the zone, from biological to social and economic impacts. Many members expressed interest in engaging social scientists as they think about future strategies.”

“My main purpose for being there was to hear about the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which will be released this fall,” Lisa added. The strategy lays out a suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient losses from both point and non-point sources. It was developed by representatives from government agencies, agriculture, and non-profits as well as scientists and wastewater treatment professionals and represents the most comprehensive and integrated approach to date for tackling nutrients in Illinois. Along with the rest of the staff at the Illinois Water Resources Center, Lisa has spent the last year facilitating the development of the state’s nutrient strategy.

As a water quality specialist focused on nutrients in the Mississippi River, the meeting was particularly interesting for Michael.

“The most encouraging part was a hearing from a new organization that has thrown their hat into the ring: the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. The group consists of 65 mayors of riverfront communities from Minnesota to New Orleans who came together to preserve the local economies that depend on the Mississippi River and improve the integrity and sustainability of the river. They have already begun implementing practices that protect and restore water quality. The city of Grafton, IL, for example, restored a wetland in their community. Wetlands are natural landscape features that facilitate flood water storage, foster native vegetation, and provide valuable habitat for a wide variety of birds and other wildlife."

To learn more about hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, visit the task force website

ShareThis