The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is nothing new. And this year, observers say, will see just an average-size dead zone.

Every summer, researchers watch as the phenomenon develops, as it has done for decades.

Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff makes its way from farms into the Mississippi River and is washed all the way downstream and into the Gulf. Once there, the fertilizer byproducts fuel plankton blooms in the warm water. Those blooms then die and decay, sucking the oxygen out of the water around them.

The end result is a dead zone, where plants and animals find it difficult or impossible to take in the oxygen they need to live. They have to flee or perish.

This year, some researchers are predicting that the zone, which varies in size each year based on weather conditions such as rainfall and storms, will be around its historical average of 5,460 square miles. That is about the size of the state of Connecticut.

While this year’s zone could be about average, there is still some bad news.

The long-term goal is to reduce the runoff upstream and see dead zones that decrease in size in the coming years. The goal of a national action plan is to reduce its size to less than 2,000 square miles by 2035. Clearly, that won’t happen if we continue to see average-sized or larger dead zones each year.

“The bottom line is that we will never reach the long-term target until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system,” said aquatic ecologist Don Scavia, professor emeritus of environment and sustainability at University of Michigan.

And that is the central challenge. The people and businesses that cause the dead zone in most cases live far away from the Gulf. They don’t see or live with the outcome each summer.

And the people and businesses that do deal with the consequences of huge areas of the Gulf where life cannot exist are powerless to change the conditions that create them.

This is a national problem that will require a national solution, one that will see an actual reduction in the pollution that results in the dead zone.

Until that happens, even the most optimistic action plan will be unable to deliver the desired results.

 

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, not of any individual.