OSU seeking $500,000 for ‘dead zone’ study

By Bob Hecker Contributing Writer

Columbus — The 2007 federal budget will likely include another
$500,000 for an Ohio State University study of an oxygen-depleted
“dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

OSU scientists familiar with the project say the research could
also be applied to resolving the problem of the well-known “dead
zone” in the central basin of Lake Erie.

On May 5, Congresswoman Deborah Pryce announced the inclusion of
the $500,000 in the House Fiscal Year 2007 Interior Appropriations
Bill, which has been approved by the U.S. House and is headed for
the Senate.

“The bill has cleared the biggest obstacle it faces, and we’re
very confident it will move through the Senate OK,” said Rob
Nichols, a spokesman for Pryce’s office, who noted that this is
second-year funding. Pryce also secured $500,000 for the project in
the 2006 spending bill.

The money would go once again to Ohio State’s Olentangy River
Wetlands Research Park, a 30-acre wetland and aquatic science
laboratory at OSU where researchers study processes in rivers and
wetlands to determine how these areas can be restored for habitat
enhancement, flood control, and water quality improvement.

The first round of funding for the ORWRP was announced last
August, shortly after the House of Representatives passed the 2005
Water Resources Development Act. That measure includes a provision
for a partnership among the ORWRP, Louisiana State University, and
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the “dead zone” in the
Gulf.

“This funding will allow OSU to dedicate its researchers and
facilities to solving one of our hemisphere’s most pressing
environmental problems,” Pryce said, referring to deep-water
regions plagued by hypoxia, or low-oxygen areas that are harmful to
aquatic life and pose a serious threat to commercial fishing,
recreation industries and, ultimately, the livelihoods of people in
communities that depend on these ecosystems.

The hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is an area along
the Louisiana-Texas coastline about the size of New Jersey.

Jeff Reutter, an OSU researcher who directs the Ohio Sea Grant
and College Program and the Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island in
Lake Erie, said the “dead zones” in the Gulf and Lake Erie are
similar because they are both caused by excessive nutrients flowing
into those waters that trigger large algae blooms.

However, Reutter said, “The essential nutrients causing the
problems are different for each body of water.”

In the salt water of the Gulf, the problem nutrient is nitrogen,
stemming largely from farmland fertilizers that wash in from the
upper Mississippi River basin.

In the fresh water of Lake Erie, the problem nutrient is
phosphorus entering from sewage treatment plants, agricultural
fields and invasive aquatic species such as zebra mussels and
quagga mussels that emit phosphorus as waste.

David Culver, an aquatics biologist and professor in the OSU
College of Biological Sciences who conducts research on Lake Erie
and at state fish hatcheries, said Ohio and other states contribute
to the Gulf “dead zone” because nitrogen runoff from fertilized
farmland flows down the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers into
the Gulf.

This leads to intensive algae growth. When the algae dies, or
when it is eaten and excreted by aquatic wildlife, it sinks to the
bottom where oxygen levels are already low and is decomposed by
bacteria, a process that further consumes oxygen, Culver said.

To compound the problem, the stratification of freshwater from
the Mississippi River and the saltwater of the Gulf thwarts the
mixing of high-oxygen water from the surface with oxygen-depleted
water of lower depths, helping to sustain the hypoxic zone.

“All of that nitrogen getting into the Gulf of Mexico is causing
big problems,” Culver said. “People down south at the bottom of the
continent do care very much about what we’re doing up here, since
our fertilizers are contributing to the situation.”

Wildlife officials say fish and other aquatic species in
oxygen-depleted zones must move to other areas that are less than
ideal for them. Species that cannot easily move away usually
die.

Reutter and Culver say research leading to wetland restoration
can help control the flow of excessive nutrients into both the Gulf
and Lake Erie.

“Wetlands are a good thing because they can naturally remove
some of the problem nutrients from waters draining into the lake or
the Gulf,” Reutter said.

ORWRP Director Bill Mitcsh, a professor of natural resources and
environmental science at OSU, said the research will help restore
Ohio’s rivers and wetlands, including those feeding into Lake
Erie.

“This funding will also be used to educate students across Ohio
about the use of wetlands in solving such an important
environmental challenge,” he said.

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