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Missouri is joining 11 other states to reduce 'dead zone' in Gulf of Mexico

 The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is approximately the size of New Jersey
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is approximately the size of New Jersey

The dead zone encompasses thousands of acres in the Gulf each summer and results in a significant impact to marine life.

An effort is underway in 12 states along the Mississippi river, including Missouri, to try to reduce a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Each partner state has developed and announced specific strategies that will be implemented over time using targeted federal funding, according to a statement by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

The dead zone – also known as an hypoxic zone – is an area where low dissolved oxygen due to excess nutrients from things like agriculture, urban areas and wastewater treatment plants causes marine animals to leave an area or die.

Thousands of acres in the Gulf of Mexico are severely impacted every summer by seasonal temperature shifts combined with an influx of excess phosphorous, nitrogen and other nutrients, according to DNR. The nutrients increase the growth of dense algal blooms that spread throughout the Gulf, depleting oxygen.

Chris Wieberg, program director with DNR’s Water Protection Program, said hypoxic zones are detrimental to both marine life and humans.

"The Gulf of Mexico is a tremendous fishery that's used by a lot of people and a lot of commercial industries...commercial fishing is a major industry in the Gulf," he said, "and, so, as the dead zone increases in size or decreases in size, we see a direct relationship to the fishing industry in the Gulf."

States in the Mississippi River Watershed contribute significantly to the nutrient load in the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty-one states and parts of Canada make up the watershed, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is already working to reduce nutrient runoff in the state, and it recently received a $965,000 grant from the U.S. EPA to kick off five additional projects.

Wieberg said Lincoln Universityin Jefferson City will receive money for a targeted research project “to evaluate best management practices to really figure out what practices have the best reduction and effectiveness as it relates to reducing nutrients.”

DNR said the research is expected to lead to more accelerated nutrient loss reductions.

Other projects include:

  • A Nutrient Reduction Progress Tracking Dashboard to track nutrient reduction progress of state-level water quality and conservation programs.
  • Expansion of the state’s ambient stream nutrient monitoring to increase monitoring capabilities at four U.S. Geological Survey water quality monitoring stations.
  • The Missouri Municipal Wastewater Nutrient Optimization Pilot to assess the efficiency of different alternative wastewater treatment strategies for reducing nutrient loads without requiring municipal treatment facilities to make large capital expenditures.
  • An educational exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center to raise awareness of nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf hypoxia as well as actions the public can take to help reduce their nutrient footprint.

Wieberg said property owners can help reduce the problem by making sure fertilizer is properly applied on their lawns and choosing a landscaping company that uses eco-friendly practices. And they should pick up pet waste, which can add to the nutrient load in area waterways.

But he said controlling soil erosion from agricultural land and urban runoff is the biggest challenge. The two main sectors he works with are point source wastewater discharges — whether municipalities or private sewer companies and industrial facilities, which are regulated for nutrient load in runoff — and agriculture, which is not.

The average erosion from cropland in Missouri. according to the University of Missouri Extension, is approximately 10 tons an acre each year, which can result in a significant loss in productivity for growers and leads to nutrients ending up in waterways.

Wieberg said the state offers incentives to growers to put practices in place that lead to reduced soil erosion. He said when topsoil stays in place, it's beneficial to both producers and the environment.

"The rising cost of fertilizer has driven a lot of producers to be more efficient and effective with their operations in terms of application and also plant utilization with regard to the whole idea of fertilization of an agricultural crop," he said.

And he continues to see increases in the numbers of growers that plant cover crops, which help keep soil and nutrients in place. Cover crops can also help with carbon sequestration, which helps reduce the effects of climate change.

The target of the 12 states' efforts is to reduce nutrient loads in the Gulf of Mexico by around 40 percent, which should "reduce the size of the zone down to levels that existed in the 1980s, in the early 1990s," said Wieberg.
Copyright 2023 KSMU. To see more, visit KSMU.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.
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