All of us, I am sure, have seen at least some of the coverage of the disastrous oil well blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico over the past six weeks. The spill is a catastrophe in many dimensions, threatening commercial fishing and shrimping, marsh habitat, and numerous bird and marine species.
People knowledgeable about the Mississippi River know that there's been a similar assault on Gulf of Mexico water quality taking place annually for quite some time: the periodic flareup of the hypoxic "dead zone." Gulf hypoxia, caused when levels of dissolved oxygen fall below a point where marine life can be supported, is largely attributable to sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus washing into the Gulf from the 31 states in the Mississippi River watershed.
The hydrological intersection of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico is far more complex than can be related here. The point I want to make is to hope that, as the oil spill disaster comes under control, whenever that may be, and programmatic efforts are pointed toward restoration of the Gulf and its ecosystems, that we not lose sight of the ongoing threat to Gulf water quality from the Mississippi.
There's a strong foundation from which to build. Since 1997, five federal agencies and agencies from ten Mississippi River states have met as part of a Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. The Task Force web site provides a valuable starting point for understanding the complex of issues involved.
The 2008 Action Plan is particularly commendable. It clarifies three goals for the Task Force's work, which might be summarized thus:
- Reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf;
- Implement nutrient and sediment action plans that protect the waters of the Mississippi River basin;
- Improve the quality of life for communities whose identity and livelihoods are directly dependent on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
A key strength of these goals is their integrated nature: they speak to human welfare as well as the welfare of biological and physical systems; they connect issues in coastal Louisiana with issues in the heartland; they make the connections, at least implicitly, between healthy communities, healthy water, and healthy economies.
Above all, they suggest that connectivity builds resilience, a quality that is badly needed as the Gulf region copes with yet another disaster. We saw these connections and resilience after Katrina, and in the planning for coastal restoration that has been taking place over the past decade.
In the months ahead we will do well to remember that Gulf resilience and Mississippi River resilience are intimately connected, and that both involve the restoration of healthy habitat for humans, plants, and animals.