An unhappy summer tradition: dead zones

Author: Merritt Frey

Since I was a baby, our family's summer traditions have all involved water: swimming at a local beach, staying at a cabin on a northern Michigan lake, or eating freshly caught whitefish. Alas, a newer summer tradition -- reading the latest news on coastal dead zones -- is not nearly as nice as those memories.

A recent Washington Post article "Alarming 'dead zone' grows in the Chesapeake" is just one example. As the article describes it:

"This year’s Chesapeake Bay dead zone covers a third of the bay, stretching from the Baltimore Harbor to the bay’s mid-channel region in the Potomac River, about 83 miles, when it was last measured in late June. It has since expanded beyond the Potomac into Virginia, officials said."

Dead zones are caused by nitrogen and phosphorus -- pollutants which run off our farm fields lawns and are discharged by sewage treatment plants. These nutrients feed excessive growth of algae. When the algae die, their decomposition sucks oxygen out of the water -- leaving a low- or no-oxygen zone. Critters that can move away abandon the area; those that can't move can die.

Here at River Network we are working with allies to advocate for water quality criteria to limit the allowable amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in our rivers, lakes and coastal waters. In fact, I just spent last week in sweaty Chicago facilitating the meeting of a group called the Mississippi River Collaborative. This incredibly talented group of policy advocates -- water leaders from the main stem Mississippi River states -- are working together to stop the most famous dead zone: the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

But the dead zone problem is not limited to the Gulf and the Chesapeake. Check out this NASA map of dead zones around the world.

What can be done? Well, the good news is that dead zones are actually reversible if we stop the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus in our rivers and coastal waters. It won't be easy, but as a country (and a world as the NASA map shows) we need to get serious about up better implementing existing laws like the Clean Water Act, reforming farm policies to encourage better management of land and fertilizer, protecting and restoring wetlands which filter pollutants, and more.

A good first step? Supporting efforts of groups like those involved in the Mississippi River Collaborative to make the case for addressing this large-scale problem...and maybe making the summer tradition of dead zones as passe as some of our other bad summer traditions that have happily faded away, like slathering our bodies in baby oil while roasting ourselves and calling the resulting burn a "healthy glow."

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