• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

    "Great book and great blog - thanks for the first book I have seen that addresses the contemporary river, headwaters to gulf." Dan McGuiness, Audubon, St. Paul, Minnesota

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It’s August and the Dead Zone

It’s a yearly expansion of a natural occurrence in the Gulf of Mexico: This year the Dead Zone has grown to the size of Massachusetts. After the Flood of 1993, it grew to the size of New Jersey. LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has posted a PDF file on how their scientist tracked this years Dead Zone.

I wrote about it last year, I am writing about it this year, and I will write about it next year, until we become willing to control the amount of fertilizers we contribute to the Dead Zone. And, by the way, there are Dead Zones in the navigation pools of the Upper Mississippi and in the great oxbows of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

When I first started working on The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I hung out in the annual meetings of the now-defunct Mississippi River Basin Alliance, a collection of environmental groups and local activists concerned about how we manage the Mississippi River and its floodplain. I sat through meetings, which at the time, were about things I barely understood, but which I knew I was going to have to learn if I were to write a credible book on the modern river and the issues surrounding its management. This is where I learned about the channelization of streams, excess nutrients on farm fields in the Mississippi Basin, and the Dead Zone.

Lake Washington, Glen Allen, Mississippi

Later as I was researching the places I was photographing, I learned that the great oxbow lakes in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana are in as much trouble as the navigation pools on the Upper Mississippi. Nutrients are washing off fields in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Basin and into the oxbows, creating low-oxygen conditions, dead zones.

Lake Washington Bayou

Lake Washington drains to Washington Bayou, which carries its water to Steele Bayou, the Yazoo River, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, where a hypoxic zone, devoid of oxygen, blossoms every summer. Reducing the nutrients flowing to the Gulf of Mexico means reducing the nutrients flowing from places like Lake Washington.

A 1996 study of the work done earlier in the decade found Lake Washington had more of everything, except dissolved oxygen: more sediment, more nutrients, more sewage, more algal blooms, and more cormorants, hanging out at the local fish farm.

In 2003 the State of Mississippi enrolled Lake Washington in the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia reduction program to restore its watershed. Again, the state identified the sources of non-point pollution flowing to the lake. Again, the state outlined the best management practices to control the pollution. The project had good state and local support. Lake Washington Property Owners Association expressed concern about sewage, cormorants, and the state of commercial fishing. The Washington County Board of Supervisors were concerned about sewage. The Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District was also concerned about sewage. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality supported the project.  So did the Mississippi Department of Health. On the federal level, the project had the support of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, and the Yazoo River Basin Team of twenty-three state and federal agencies. Ducks Unlimited and other non-governmental organizations supported the project.

Project partners adopted the EPA 9 watershed planning elements to develop their plan: Identify and quantify all the water quality issues effecting Lake Washington–nutrient levels, sediment, sewage, cormorants, over-fishing. Estimate what it would take to reduce non-point pollution and restore water quality. Describe the means of achieving restoration. Estimate how much financial and technical assistant would be needed to implement a plan. Educate the public about the need for restoration. Schedule the work. Define milestones. Set criteria for success. Develop a monitoring plan.

The first step was collecting the data. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality measured the load of nutrients in Lake Washington every month, beginning in November 2002, measured fecal coliform in July and August 2004, assessed fish kills in September 2004, and mapped the depth of the lake yearly to estimate the amount of soil being eroded into the lake. The Mississippi Department of Health assessed the wastewater treatment system at the lake.

Beginning in January 2004 the partners, including the residents of Lake Washington held a series of fifteen meetings at which they wrote a hypoxia action plan and plans for controlling wastewater and fisheries. Their last meeting would be held in December 2006 at which point the partners would be ready to implement the plan to restore Lake Washington.

In 2008 the EPA announced a action plan to control nutrients delivered to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi Basin. A year ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service announced that the agencies will provide $325 million over four years to farmers in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.  This will help the farmers implement conservation measures to retain nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, in their fields, keep the runoff out of the Ohio and Mississippi and therefore out of the Gulf of Mexico.[i]

[i] U.S. Environmental Quality Agency, Gulf of Mexico Program, “Lake Washington Nutrient Showcase Project,” Meeting Summary, October 25, 2003, http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/lmrsbc/meetsum_lakewa_oct03.html; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Handbook for Develping Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters, Chapter 2, Overview of Watershed Planning Process, October 2005, http://www.epa.gov/owow/nps/watershed_handbook/pdf/ch02.pdf; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gulf of Mexico Program, Lake Washington Watershed–Nutrient Reduction Showcase Project, Power Point Slide Show, http://www.epa.gov/gmpo/presentations/lmrsbc-lakewashington/lmr-lakewashington.html; Winkley, Brien R., Man-made Cutoffs on the Lower Mississippi River, Conception, Construction, and River Response, Potamology Investigations, Report 300-2, Vicksburg: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1977, 39-40.


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