The annual summer dead zone that develops in the Gulf of Mexico has arrived once again.

But, while its arrival remains a troubling sign of the level of agricultural runoff that affects the Gulf and the life it supports, its size appears to be smaller than what the experts expected — giving some hope that perhaps the problem is trending in the right direction.

“The momentum is in the right direction,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey, a member of the Hypoxia Task Force, said. “Though, I certainly don’t have an end point for when things will have a massive improvement either.”

The dead zone, or hypoxia, remains a concern, particularly here on the Gulf Coast where our fishermen and others are directly affected by it. Nitrogen and phosphorous runs off from farmland throughout the Mississippi River Valley, eventually making its way to the Gulf. There it spurs huge growths of algae in the warm summer sea. The algae then dies off, sucking the oxygen out of the water and killing wildlife or making it flee to more hospitable waters.

Unfortunately, the effects of the dead zone are seen and felt far away from where its causes reside, making the problem a tough one for any agency other than the federal government to tackle.

For years now, scientists have measured the zone and registered alarm at its continued existence, all to no avail. While there have been some voluntary efforts to curb the water pollution at the phenomenon’s root, anything short of federal action is unlikely to have a large enough impact on it.

“Nitrate levels have not gone down, and phosphorous levels have actually increased,” said Raleigh Hoke, the campaign director for Healthy Gulf.

And there is some speculation that Hurricane Barry could have made the dead zone appear smaller than it actually was this summer.

In any event, federal action is needed to protect our plentiful but delicate natural resources. We cannot continue to dump harmful chemicals into our river and our Gulf and expect the outcomes to be any different than they have been for years now.

The dead zone is a sign of imbalance, and it should be a call to action for the agencies that can make a difference. We have to continue watching to see if it has the effects it should.

An editorial from the Houma [Louisiana] Courier.

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