Louisiana Policymakers: To Solve the Dead Zone, Climate Change, and COVID-19, Embrace Equitable, Science-Based Policies Now

August 19, 2021
US EPA/Flickr
Rebecca Boehm
Economist

Last week scientists supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) measured the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an area of ocean water so depleted of oxygen that fish, shrimp, and other marine life flee from it or die in it. It’s caused largely by excess nitrogen that washes off farms upstream all along the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana.

This year, the dead zone clocked in at a whopping 6,400 square miles. To put that into perspective, that’s 18 times the land area of New Orleans, a city that sits near the edge of the dead zone, in the state most impacted by its presence. As our research has shown, the dead zone causes billions of dollars of damage to the Gulf coast every year that it recurs, much of which falls on the shoulders of the Bayou State, and on the state’s shrimpers who are largely Vietnamese immigrants and refugees.

While hugely problematic, the dead zone is just one of many challenges Gulf communities are facing. Rising sea levels and extreme weather caused by climate change are threatening to make large parts of the region unlivable, while Louisiana’s coastline is literally disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico due in large part to climate change, levees, and river diversions. 

On top of all this, the coronavirus delta variant has overwhelmed hospitals along the Gulf Coast. In Louisiana, a record number of children are now hospitalized with severe illness due to the virus.  

Interconnected problems require equitable solutions

To address the dead zone, climate change and COVID-19, policymakers must adopt equitable and science-based solutions. The good news is: these solutions are readily available right now. Where the rubber meets the road is getting Gulf Coast policymakers to support and implement them.

Louisiana policymakers especially need to act to protect their constituents’ lives and livelihoods, which are at particular risk from the dead zone, climate change, and COVID-19.    

To protect the state’s constituents and the very land and waters on which they depend, we explain what’s at stake for Louisiana from all three threats. And we identify three pressing actions Louisiana policymakers must take to shrink the dead zone, stop climate change, and protect their constituents from the coronavirus.  

Support the Agricultural Resilience Act; reform the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force

The causes of the dead zone have been known for decades. Nitrogen pollution washes off farms into the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers which carry it to the Gulf of Mexico. Once there, this nitrogen pollution causes an overgrowth of algae that reduces ocean oxygen levels needed to support aquatic life, including commercially important fish and shellfish species.

The dead zone forms right off the Louisiana coastline, a region known for its unique wildlife, beautiful scenery, and its diverse mix of people and cultures, including Indigenous communities that have maintained close connections to the Gulf of Mexico for generations.

The coast is also critical to Louisiana’s economy. According to a new report from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the state’s coastal commercial fishing industry and seafood product preparation and packaging industry employ just over 8,500 people, supporting nearly $200 million dollars of personal income, and $1.2 billion in economic output. The researchers found that enhancing the coastal seafood industry in Louisiana could provide a significant boost to the state’s economy at a time when Louisiana ranks 48th in median household income and 46th in GDP among US states.  

Research shows that the dead zone poses a threat to Louisiana’s fishing industry. Since the mid-90s, Louisiana has seen a significant decline in commercial fishing and shrimping licenses as fishers and shrimpers go out of business, in part because they are forced to travel farther and farther to fill their nets–spending more on fuel, and less time fishing–while also competing with imports. What’s more, as the dead zone grows, shrimpers are more likely to catch the smaller shrimp fleeing the dead zone, lowering their earnings now and in the future, when there will be fewer large, mature shrimp. The annual shrimp catch has steadily declined, putting at risk the livelihoods of Louisiana’s commercial shrimpers. These costs are not borne equally: one in four Louisiana shrimpers are Vietnamese refugees.

The economic impact of the dead zone extends far beyond commercial shrimpers and fishers. Commercial fishers buy fuel, gear, and other supplies, and their catch is sold at markets, bars, and restaurants that attract visitors from around the world, supporting a wide range of jobs for locals. The wages and income generated from these businesses multiply throughout the Louisiana economy, as seafood restaurant owners and workers, for example, spend their paychecks on goods and services, and restaurants purchase equipment and supplies from other businesses in the region.

Because the solutions to the dead zone lie upstream in the Midwest, Louisiana’s congressional delegation needs to support federal legislation targeted at the agricultural sector in the Midwest. The Agricultural Resilience Act, which will help more farmers adopt practices that keep nitrogen out of waterways such as the Mississippi River, is one such piece of legislation. Louisiana’s Congressional delegation could also request that Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General conduct an audit of the efficacy of the Mississippi River/Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, a task force charged for decades with shrinking the dead zone. The Hypoxia Task Force should also include those people who are affected by the dead zone. Louisiana’s congressional delegation should encourage EPA to amend the Task Force charter dictating its membership to increase representation of tribal communities, community-based businesses, and organizations in the Gulf that are most vulnerable to the dead zone’s impacts.

Support comprehensive climate change legislation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report leaves nothing to the imagination: we are heading towards catastrophe without bold action to protect our climate now. In the US, climate change has already increased the frequency of extreme rain events, including floods, which will continue to get worse as warming increases. What’s more, climate change makes shrinking the Gulf of Mexico dead zone much more difficult. Heavy downpours and floods like those experienced in the Midwest in 2018 result in more nitrogen runoff and soil erosion from farms. Ultimately, these nutrients and soil end up in rivers and streams including those that feed the Mississippi River–whose volume increases with more rain–which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The result for the Gulf Coast: more nitrogen pollution and larger dead zones.  

If the dead zone weren’t enough, climate change-induced sea level rise threatens to engulf wetlands and communities along Louisiana’s coast, destroying marine life nurseries and driving out the people who have coexisted with the wetlands for generations. Already, rising tides have claimed 2,000 miles of the state’s coastline. A UCS analysis found that most of southern Louisiana will face chronic flooding by 2035. Up to 50 percent of northern New Orleans and up to 75 percent of the area south of Houma will experience chronic flooding. And we have seen evidence time and time again that flooding disproportionately harms majority Black neighborhoods.

Sea level rise also threatens to wipe out millions of dollars of real estate along the Louisiana coast. A UCS report found that in Louisiana’s first Congressional District–represented by Republican Steve Scalise, a climate change denier–18,000 homes worth nearly $2 billion (2018 dollars) are at risk of chronic water inundation by 2045. But it’s not just Rep. Scalise’s district that is at risk of losing real estate value. Billions of dollars of real estate are at risk in Louisiana’s second and sixth districts, which together make up most of the state’s land area. Whose property is protected from rising sea levels, and who is encouraged to move through buyout programs, are questions of equity.

The state is already spending money to address climate-related changes to the coastline. Sea level rise, along with decades-old river diversions and levees, have forced Louisiana to divert water and sediment from the Mississippi River to weakened wetlands at a cost of more than $2 billion to the state. While these diversions help protect the coastline, they put at risk the state’s shrimpers, crabbers, and oyster farmers who rely on the marshes’ unique blend of brackish waters, and are under other pressures like the recurrent dead zone.

Policy options exist to address the daunting and complex challenges presented by climate change. And given the impacts along the Gulf Coast, Louisiana’s congressional delegation should be especially supportive of legislation that helps reduce heat trapping emissions and other proposals that help the state’s communities adapt to future warming. Examples of these policy options include cleaning up the power sector, electrifying the US vehicle fleet, and providing funding for communities who are impacted by climate change disasters.

COVID-19 vaccination and public health precautions

If Louisiana were a country, it would have the second-highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world. The state’s hospitals, including those that treat children, are overflowing. Louisiana’s governor John Bel Edwards fasted for three days to honor the state’s health care workers and raise awareness for Louisianans who are sick or who have died from COVID-19.

The highly contagious Delta variant, combined with the very low vaccination rate among those eligible to receive a shot (37% of Louisiana residents, as of August 7, 2021), and lax masking and social distancing requirements have driven this fourth wave in Louisiana. Without doubt, we know that this wave could have been prevented with more vaccinations and more public health precautions like masking. Which is why what is happening in Louisiana is so heartbreaking.

One scary thing about a wave of COVID-19 infections is it can make other problems much worse. As a good friend of mine–who was born and raised in Baton Rouge, lived through Katrina, and whose family still resides in Louisiana–recently wondered: what will people do if there is a major hurricane in the midst of rising COVID-19 cases?

To be honest, I just don’t know. What if severe weather cut the power to a hospital’s ICU? How long would a generator last? How could hundreds of thousands of people safely shelter together without causing another massive outbreak of Delta?

While we hope and pray that Louisiana avoids a major hurricane this year, COVID-19 has and will continue to impact so many people and their livelihoods, and various facets of the economy–including those that are related to important cultural traditions like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which was cancelled because of COVID-19. This comes amid still lackluster economic news for the city. Data indicate that consumer spending and employment in New Orleans is just now beginning to rebound, while small business revenue still remains 60% below January 2020 levels.

Louisiana’s fishing industry, which accounts for one out of every 70 jobs in the state, is crucial to the New Orleans restaurant scene and coastal tourism statewide. Like the city itself, the industry still struggles to recover from the impacts of the earlier waves of coronavirus. Ninety-four percent of commercial Gulf fishers reported losses during the first six months of 2020 due to the pandemic, with revenue declining 56 percent on average. While the state’s fishing industry has received $27.3 million in federal aid as part of the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief measures, advocates have called for greater relief. All in all, Louisiana accounted for only 4.9 percent of the total aid to the U.S. fishing industry, despite the fact that the Gulf is the nation’s second largest fishery.

And while we could describe the long list of devastating economic and social impacts of COVID-19 on New Orleans and Louisiana, the solutions to all of these impacts are the same. They are proven by science and implementable in the short term in an equitable way. These include more widespread vaccination of the Louisiana population and public health precautions including masking, social distancing, and testing.

Louisiana policymakers: listen up and act now

Addressing the dead zone, climate change, and COVID-19 with equitable, science-based policies will help protect the people and communities along the Louisiana shoreline, as well as those in New Orleans, at a time when the state faces so many threats. The solutions are there. Louisiana policymakers just need to take action now.