Holy Toledo! The Gulf of Mexico is also a dead zone


Make no mistake — there’s a war on water in this country. One of the biggest culprits is the fracking industry, which continues to use billions of gallons of precious H2O to drill for oil across the drought-parched American West, even as lawns turn brown and some homeowners wonder when their taps will go dry. Then there’s the assault on rivers — the undetected spill from the aptly named Freedom Industries in West Virginia that polluted drinking water for several hundred thousand, as well as the coal ash pollution along North Carolina’s scenic waterways and the oil train that burst into flames along a Virginia riverbank.

Thus, what happened in this weekend in Toledo, Ohio, should be viewed less as a wake-up call than an exclamation point on a worsening crisis in America. In the Buckeye State’s 4th-largest city, officials had to shut down the entire city water supply over the weekend when a massive toxic algae bloom overwhelmed the system at unsafe levels. Algae blooms had been a problem in the Great Lakes before, in the 1970s and 1980s, until tougher pollution controls helped get a handle on the problem…for a time. Now, runoff from agricultural products, such as fertilizer, as well as overdevelopment of northwest Ohio has brought the crisis back.

Down here on the Gulf Coast, we understand how they felt. Here, the effects of runoff in the farm-heavy American West finds its way to the Mississippi River, but the real impact is felt past the mouth of the mighty river, in the Gulf of Mexico just off the Louisiana coast. For several years now, officials have looked for ways to curtail what is commonly known as “the dead zone” in the Gulf, a vast swath devoid of any vibrant marine life. But they’ve made little progress. In fact, this season the Gulf dead zone is about the size of Connecticut.

This year, the dead zone extends 5,052 square miles across the coast of Louisiana, which, while average in size, is still much larger than a national goal of reducing its size to a five-year average of 1,930 square miles by 2015.

Instead of meeting that goal, this year’s dead zone is nearly three times that size and it’s likely to continue that way for some time.

“The social and political will to make changes in the watershed just isn’t there,” said Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie. “After this long, I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated, but I’m disappointed in the lack of action.”

Here is the science of what the nutrient-rich Mississippi River flows are doing to the Gulf:

The microscopic water plants called phytoplankton contain chlorophyll and produce oxygen through photosynthesis, the same process found in leaves and grasses. Oxygen levels in water at the surface along the research vessel Pelican’s route ranged from 130 to 150 percent of those in the atmosphere above it and once hit 245 percent, Rabalais said.

“Which means the phytoplankton community was just really — I don’t want to use the word ‘cooking.’ But it was almost as if the water was bubbling in places, there was so much photosynthesis going on,” she said. Much of that plankton will end up on the bottom, she said.

In theory, this problem can be tackled, but that would require political will and a dose of regulation, and these things seem to be lacking. “We see most of the Mississippi River states dragging their feet, claiming that voluntary actions alone can clean up the Dead Zone. If the past decade of ‘Action Plans’ and ‘reduction strategies’ is any indication, this simply isn’t working,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director of the Gulf Restoration Project, told the Houston Chronicle this week. “It is obvious that if the states don’t want to address this issue, EPA must act, and regretfully we aren’t seeing significant action from EPA either.”

The toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie and the massive dead zone in the Gulf are the two sides of the same coin. The golden era of environmental regulation, beginning in the early 1970s with the first Earth Day and the creation of the EPA, has waned. Now we’re at the point where the very lifeblood of American civilization — the water that we drink, cook with, and bathe in — is under assault. Maybe the near-miss in Toledo will get people’s attention. We were winning the water wars once. We need to start all over again.

Read the latest from Think Progress on the Toledo water crisis: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/08/04/3467154/toledo-water-results/

Check out the New Orleans Advocate coverage of the so-called “dead zone”: http://theadvocate.com/news/9903150-123/gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone

Here’s the Houston Chronicle on the Gulf dead zones: http://www.chron.com/news/texas/article/Dead-zone-off-Louisiana-about-at-5-year-average-5667113.php

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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