Water is perhaps one of the most important substances in keeping the world healthy. And the name of Nancy Rabalais has been prominent in southeast Louisiana for almost three decades in her studies of it.
As executive director of Louisiana University Marine Consortium laboratory (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, she has spearheaded our efforts to keep Louisiana’s coastal waters capable of supporting the major source of commercial fish in the nation. She reports regularly on the extent of our dead zone in the Gulf where fish cannot survive in waters at lower depths.
Last week, Rabalais was awarded a $500,000 "genius grant" by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for "documenting the environmental and economic consequences of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico and informing strategies for restoring the degraded waters of the Gulf and Mississippi River basins."
The dead zone is mainly caused by fertilizer from farms in the midwest. Spring rains wash it into the Mississippi River where much of it eventually flows into the Gulf. There, it creates a layer above the salt water where it feeds algae that grow and die and sink to the bottom. Their decay robs the water of oxygen, which creates the dead zone.
This kills off the regular inhabitants of the lower layer and steers shrimp and fish who come there to feed to other areas. The dead zone off the coast of Louisiana is usually larger than the state of Delaware but in 2002 it was larger than the state of Massachusetts.
Rabalais has kept us abreast of how large the dead zone is. The depletion of oxygen in the water usually lasts from spring until storms stir up the waters. That is one benefit of hurricanes.
The United States Department of Agriculture has been requiring midwest farmers to keep their fertilizers onshore and away from river waters where it can flow to our coast and damage our fisheries. But this has been largely ignored by those who spread it.
It is necessary that this requirement be enforced in the future so the Louisiana coast will continue its generous production of fish. If not, the agriculture department cannot blame the oil industry for destroying it.
Yes, water is one of our most valuable resources. But we have to keep it in its usable forms if our world is to remain healthy.