Federal report documents more than 300 areas where is affected
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — We are pouring so many pollutants into our streams and rivers that acute incidents of hypoxia have increased 30-fold since the 1960s, the U.S. government concluded in a new report released this week.
Hypoxia is a condition in which oxygen levels drop so low that fish and other animals are stressed or killed. The areas affected by hypoxia are known as dead zones, and because of the biological chemistry of those growing areas, they are even becoming a growing factor in global warming.
The research also documented a hypoxic area in the Pacific, off the coast of Oregon and Washington. The area is the third-largest dead zone in the world, behind the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea, and it may be linked to global warming, according to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
The report carefully catalogues more than 300 U.S. coastal zones affected by hypoxia, as well as some of the efforts to address the issue.
“These growing dead zones endanger fragile ecosystems and potentially jeopardize billions of dollars in economic activity,” Jackson said. “This science can be the foundation for measures that will preserve our waters and reverse the trend, including innovative, watershed-based solutions to this challenge.”
The pollutants that cause hypoxia are nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. Fertilizer runoff from agricultural, urban and suburban landscapes, sewage discharges, and air pollution are major contributors. The supply of added nutrients entering bodies of water supports blooms of algae, which in turn are decomposed by oxygen-depleting bacteria.
The resulting hypoxia can suffocate animals that cannot move away, such as shellfish, and—depending on how quickly the hypoxia develops—either kill or force into less suitable habitat free-swimming animals such as fish, shrimp, and crabs. The new report, produced by an interagency working group of the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources, also notes that climate change may be causing or exacerbating the problem.
Incidents of hypoxia were documented in nearly 50 percent of the 647 waterways assessed for the new report, including the Gulf of Mexico, home to one of the largest such zones in the world.
Some areas are now in better condition than they were a few decades ago. But overall, management efforts to stem the tide of hypoxia “have not made significant headway,” the report concludes, in part due to increased development and population growth in coastal watersheds.
“The Obama Administration has taken aggressive action to address water quality in the Mississippi River Basin and in turn, in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “For instance, USDA’s new Mississippi River Basin Healthy Waters Initiative is a targeted, science-based effort to give agricultural producers the tools and incentives they need to improve water quality.”
“Significant progress has been made on monitoring to define the source areas and yields of nutrients delivered to coastal waters by streams and rivers and on modeling to determine the human activities that are the most significant contributors to those nutrient yields,” said U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia K. McNutt. “With some improvements this monitoring and modeling information would enable best management practices and mitigation measures to be targeted in the watersheds and on the human activities that have the most significant effect on decreasing nutrient transfer from land to coastal ecosystems.”
Federal officials hope a coordinated approach — with NOAA looking at coastal water, the agriculture department tackling nutrient sources, and the EPA looking at point sources of pollution — will help get a handle on the problem.
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