The Gulf of Mexico has the largest dead zone in the United States and the second-largest in the world. Dead zones form when excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous wash into waterways and spur algal blooms, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish, shrimp, and other marine life. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone can range between an astounding 3,000 and 8,000 square miles. At its largest, it’s about the size of Massachusetts.
Reducing this growing dead zone problem is a huge scientific, technical, economic, and political challenge. It’s a conundrum that agricultural and environmental experts from across the United States will deliberate this week at the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.
This post is part of a series on World Water Week, an annual event designed to draw attention to and discuss global water issues. Read more posts in this series.
Agricultural production often comes at the expense of water quality. As my colleague, Mindy Selman, noted in a recent blog post, “Agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.”
Water supply and availability could be the most pressing problem restricting China’s economic growth in the next 10-15 years, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank. Not only are water resources limited (only about 30 percent of total water resources are available for use), but many surface and groundwater sources are suffering from severe pollution.[^1] The Chinese government is now looking to invest in new ideas to improve water quality and supply, and WRI is using its water quality trading expertise to explore the potential of market-based methods to improve water quality and increase the supply of clean water from Chao Lake, the fifth-largest lake in China.
2011 will be an important year for the Chesapeake Bay, not only because scientists are predicting an unusually bad “dead zone” this summer.
Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) that establish the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that the Bay and its tidal tributaries can safely receive each year. The TMDLs divide the pollution loads among sources, such as urban areas regulated for stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural lands.
Now, responsibility for implementing the TMDLs falls to states in the Bay watershed that have been delegated authority from EPA to run water quality programs. By December 1, 2011, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia will submit plans to EPA that explain how sources within their jurisdiction will meet and maintain the TMDLs.
The December deadline has states reviewing legislation and regulations that could reduce the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that impairs Bay water bodies.
Wisconsin is a state blessed with abundant natural beauty and was home to one of America’s first conservationists, Aldo Leopold. Leopold recognized that beyond commodities, nature provides services that sustain our planet – such as clean air, clean water and recreational opportunities – and that these services are worth something. He also recognized the importance of providing incentives that reward proper land management. Leopold’s vision still resonates as the 4th annual Ecosystem Markets Conference takes place this week in Madison, Wisconsin.