Venice, LA.--Zipping along in a 21-foot bay boat, we follow a muddy-brown finger of the Mississippi past golden-tipped marsh grass to the point where the river tickles the Gulf of Mexico. As the afternoon sun curbs the April chill, it is difficult to imagine that below the river's glassy surface lurks a deadly force. Every year this invisible menace creates a vast swath of oxygen-starved water along the Louisiana coast, suffocating billions of creatures by midsummer. Aptly dubbed the dead zone, this phenomenon hit record proportions in 1999 at 20,000 square kilometers--roughly the size of New Jersey.
Blame falls primarily on the 1.6 million metric tons of nitrogen--mostly fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms--that pour out of the Mississippi and the nearby Atchafalaya rivers every year. State and federal officials finally agreed last October on a plan to curtail this recurring ecological disaster, known as hypoxia. But with no budget and no official committee to coordinate strategies, the plan is vulnerable to political whims. "This whole issue is being caught in that flux, so it's really hard to predict what will happen," says marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais, whose 16 years of work with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium brought the dead zone into the limelight.
This article was originally published with the title Shrinking the Dead Zone.