DU Weighs In On Dead Zone
Biologists from Ducks Unlimited (DU), the international leader in wetlands conservation, weighed in on the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force's plan to reduce hypoxia, known as the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. The plan was submitted to Congress by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on January 18.

The purpose of the Task Force plan is to find ways through existing programs to decrease levels of both non-point and point sources of nitrogen and phosphorus that enter into the Mississippi River. When nutrients get swept off the land, either by rain or wind, or are discharged from wastewater facilities, they run off into rivers and streams. "The end result is an overaccumulation of these life-giving inputs, which triggers excessive algal growth in the Gulf of Mexico. When these short-lived organisms die and decompose, oxygen is depleted from the bottom water, creating a 'dead zone' where marine organisms are either forced to move or suffocate to death," says Dr. Steve Adair, Director of Conservation Programs at DU. Hypoxia occurs nationwide and is present in over half of our major estuaries. The mouth of the Mississippi River — the Gulf of Mexico — has become a focal point nationally in part because the Gulf 'dead zone' is of such great geographic expanse, often likened to the state of New Jersey.

"The Task Force plan places a great deal of emphasis on voluntary federal restoration programs that we support. Those programs include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). Both programs are close to their maximum enrollment, meaning that caps will prevent landowners from participating," said Dr. Alan Wentz, Group Manager of Conservation Programs at DU. When the Farm Bill is reauthorized in 2002, there will be an opportunity to open up these prgrams to more participants, and in effect, restore more wetlands. "Reauthorization can't come soon enough," said Dr. Wentz.

Wetlands act as natural water filters, absorbing pollutants before they infiltrate waterways. "I am very pleased to see the mobilization behind the hypoxia problem. Discussion of this issue will inevitably focus attention on the role of wetlands as natural water filters. If you look at the 'dead zone' as dirty water, then wetlands are the sponges that will help clean it up," said Dr. Wentz. The scope of wetland protection has recently come under focus in the aftermath of a recent Supreme Court decision curtailing the regulatory power of the Army Corps of Engineers. "We have dispatched a team of biologists to study the possible impact of this decision. There is still a great deal of debate, but there is a possibility that the decision could remove protection for isolated wetlands, which comprise approximately 20 percent of our nation's remaining wetlands. Loss of these wetlands would further exacerbate many of our nation's water quality problems such as the Gulf "dead zone,' " said Dr. Wentz.

In other news related to wetlands, a recent report published by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service indicates that wetland destruction has slowed considerably. "I have serious concerns about the findings published in this report, which states that the rate of loss has declined to 58,000 acres per year. We continue to lose vegetated wetlands at a rate of 109,000 acres per year. These wetlands provide the greatest habitat and water quality benefits of all wetland types. Wetland gains have come primarily from unvegetated ponds, associated with aquaculture and urban and rural development, and offer limited wetland functions. Such a substitution is not an even trade; in fact it masks continued loss of our nation's most productive wetlands," said Dr. Wentz.

Wentz noted that the United States is far behind goals to protect wetlands from loss and deterioration. Just a few years ago, the Clinton administration called for an annual increase of 100,000 wetland acres. And prior to Clinton, George Bush called for "no net loss" of wetlands while campaigning for the presidency 10 years ago. "In the context of hypoxia, a huge water pollution problem, the need to realize such goals is even more urgent. And yet in the Southeast, where the problem of hypoxia is most acute, the loss of wetlands has been the most severe."

Dr. Adair has been involved in the "dead zone" issue and has studied the U.S. Fish & Wildlife report. "Wetlands associated with the Mississippi River play a critical role in filtering farm runoff before it enters the river, particularly in farm belt states in the Midwest. The last defense against the 'dead zone' takes place in the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, which cleans river water before the Mississippi empties into the Gulf. The recent wetlands survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service indicates a loss rate of 1,208 acres per year for estuarine emergent wetlands, the type of wetland found in coastal Louisiana. Concurrent studies for Louisiana indicate a loss that is much higher, at approximately 15,000 acres a year," said Dr. Adair. "The dead zone problem does not have easy solutions, but we must be clear that slowing wetland loss is not enough to solve the important wildlife and water quality issues facing our nation. We need to move into an era of net gains in wetlands to make up for the loss of over 100 million acres that has occurred since settlement. Otherwise we are just spinning our wheels."

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