News Feature | April 1, 2014

Louisiana Takes On 'Dead Zones' By Tackling Nutrients

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

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Louisiana has a new plan to reduce nutrients in rivers.

The state "plans to use existing and proposed sediment and freshwater diversions as part of a new plan for removing a small share of the fertilizers and other nutrients from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers that are linked to springtime low-oxygen 'dead zones' along the state's coastline each year," the Times-Picayune reported

The plan was developed by the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Departments of Agriculture and Forestry, Environmental Quality, and Natural Resources.

Dead zones are a problem for the fishing industry and for river ecosystems. They are "created each spring when nutrient-rich freshwater from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers triggers blooms of algae at the Gulf's surface. The algae dies and sinks to the bottom, where its decomposition uses up oxygen in the saltier water layer there. The low oxygen levels kill organisms living in bottom sediments and cause shrimp and fish able to escape to move to more oxygen-rich waters," the report said.

The dead zones have grown to enormous proportions in recent years, covering up to 8,000 square miles along the coast.

State officials say using diversions to solve the nutrient problem could be highly effective. 

"The state strategy contends that the diversions will eventually be able to remove nitrogen equaling more than 250 percent of the amount believed generated within the state's borders, and phosphorous equaling about 40 percent of that generated in the state. But that represents less than 5 percent of the total nitrogen and phosphorus carried by the river to the Gulf, mostly from farmland in Midwestern states," the report said.

Planners described the strategy as "an effort to manage nutrient levels while meeting regulatory requirements under the Clean Water Act and while developing incentive-based approaches for participation of all stakeholders within the watershed community." 

The plan has already raised some criticism. Some observers "have voiced concerns that the draft strategy is lacking in specific actions and doesn’t go much beyond maintaining the status quo," The Advocate reported

Matt Rota, senior policy director with the Gulf Restoration Network, said the strategy doesn't "include specific goals and timelines for nutrient reductions and the activity list is primarily administrative issues," according to the report. 

“Regretfully, I was disappointed in it,” he said. 

Image credit: "Atchafalaya River Hwy Boat Ramp at I-10," vintage19_something © 2010, used under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

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