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Near Record ‘Dead Zone’ Predicted for Gulf of Mexico

Oceans
This map shows how pollution from cities and farms flows down into the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA

Every year the Gulf of Mexico hosts a human caused "dead zone." This year, it will approach record levels scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — or NOAA — estimate, in a statement released Monday.


The researchers predict the hypoxic zone — an area with little to no oxygen that can kill marine life — to be nearly 8,000 square miles or roughly the size of Massachusetts.

NOAA wasn't the only organization to estimate a near record dead zone this summer. Researchers from Louisiana State University (LSU) released a statement on Monday predicting this year's dead zone to be 8,717 square miles, making it the second largest on record.

"We think this will be the second-largest, but it could very well go over that," said Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist who studies dead zones co-authored the LSU report, as CNN reported.

The Gulf of Mexico's dead zone is a result of nutrient pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorus from urban environments and farms, traveling through the Mississippi River watershed and into the gulf, according to NOAA's press release.

NOAA pointed to the overwhelming spring rains along the Mississippi River, which led to record high river flows and flooding, as a major contributing factor to this year's sizeable dead zone.

The record flooding brought a substantial amount of pollutants into the water. "This past May, discharge in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers was about 67 percent above the long-term average between 1980 and 2018. USGS estimates that this larger-than average river discharge carried 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico in May alone. These nitrate loads were about 18 percent above the long-term average, and phosphorus loads were about 49 percent above the long-term average," NOAA said in its press release.

What happens is the nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which fall to the bottom of the water and decompose with the bacteria that uses up the oxygen, creating an area with not enough oxygen to sustain life.

"The low oxygen conditions in the gulf's most productive waters stresses organisms and may even cause their death, threatening living resources, including fish, shrimp and crabs caught there," LSU said in a statement. "Low oxygen conditions started to appear 50 years ago when agricultural practices intensified in the Midwest."

To prevent the problem in the future, a task force of federal, state and tribal agencies from 12 of the 31 states that comprise the Mississippi River watershed set a goal of reducing the dead zone from an average of about 5,800 square miles to an average of 1,900 square miles, but that number is far from today's reality, according to NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.

"While this year's zone will be larger than usual because of the flooding, the long-term trend is still not changing," said Don Scavia, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Michigan who contributed to the NOAA report, in a University of Michigan statement. "The bottom line is that we will never reach the dead zone reduction target of 1,900 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system."

In the meantime, farmers along the Mississippi can build embankments to stop runoff, diversifying their crops and using sustainable perennials like wheat grass, which will hold more nitrogen and soil in the ground since it has a longer root than corn and soybeans, according to CNN.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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