Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.
Despite earlier predictions, scientists this week reported that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” did not hit an all-time record size. But the news was nothing to celebrate.
The dead zone–an area of water where oxygen is depleted, preventing any marine life from surviving–is now 6,765 square miles wide. That’s bigger than the state of Connecticut and one of the largest dead zones ever recorded in the Gulf (the dead zone has continued to grow since measuring began in 1985).
The report by Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (PDF) is just the latest evidence for the need to invest in our natural resources or risk severe consequences to our jobs, economies and communities.
Scientists had predicted this year’s dead zone would be the largest on record due to the historic floods this spring that washed nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, from farm land, lawns, sewage treatment plants and other sources along the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.
If Tropical Storm Don hadn’t hit the Gulf last week, whipping up waves and wind to temporarily re-supply oxygen to the water, the dead zone would likely have broken previous records.
When floods hit the Mississippi River this spring, the immediate damage was obvious—ruined homes, inundated farm lands and disrupted businesses costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the impacts of the floods are now being felt by even more people and communities than originally thought. The dead zone poses a real threat to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industry, which generates more than 600,000 jobs and $9 billion in wages annually.
Because fish and other commercial species usually move out to sea in order to avoid the dead zone, fishermen are forced to travel farther from land—and spend more time and money—to make their catches, adding stress to an industry already hurt by hurricanes and the oil spill.
Those species that can’t move—or can’t move fast enough—die off, leading to the name “dead zone.”
The Gulf produces roughly 40 percent of all the seafood in the lower 48 states. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has previously estimated that the dead zone costs the U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year.
This year’s floods and the resulting dead zone remind us that our lands and waters are interconnected; damage to a natural system in one part of the country can impact communities thousands of miles away.
It’s an important lesson that our elected leaders should not forget in this time of cutting the Federal budget. Investing in our nation’s lands and water is a direct investment in America’s communities and economy.
But proposed spending bills that have been taken up by Congress over the last few months—and will now be affected by the debt ceiling agreement—have included deep cuts to conservation programs that have kept our natural resources strong and productive for decades.
Among the programs now in jeopardy are Farm Bill Conservation Title provisions that encourage farmers and forest land owners to conserve and manage their land in ways that minimize soil erosion, improve water quality by reducing polluted runoff, mitigate the risks of flood damage and provide wildlife habitat.
The dead zone is just one of the threats that poses financial hardship to the Gulf region—and the nation as a whole. It has been more than a year since the oil spill disaster that poured 205 million gallons of crude into the Gulf’s waters, and it is now time to take more decisive action to restore the Gulf of Mexico back to health.
Legislation called the RESTORE Act has been introduced in the Senate that would dedicate 80 percent of the money that could result from oil spill fines to restoring the Gulf’s communities, economies and environments. Without Congressional action, current law would have most of the money toward general government spending rather than helping the Gulf recover.
This fall, a federal task force appointed by President Obama will unveil a comprehensive plan for restoring the Gulf. Funding from potential oil spill fines is needed to ensure that plan is implemented and that we, as a nation, can work together to restore the Gulf of Mexico.
A healthy Gulf is vital to the well-being of communities around the region and across the nation. This year’s massive dead zone is just the latest challenge facing this incredible natural resource that provides us with jobs, income, food, shelter and diverse wildlife.
And, as we look toward reducing the cost of government we should recognize that environmental investment should not be cut disproportionately. The health of our land, freshwater and oceans is not a luxury—it is a foundation for the economic and social well being of our society.