August 1, 2016|By Ray Herndon and Michael Schwartz

By integrating the services of different programs at The Conservation Fund, our staff is able to create and implement innovative, practical ways to benefit the natural world and the well-being of Americans. One great example of that is the work being done to revive a dead zone (an area of oxygen-deficient water in which sea life cannot survive) in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to collaborating within the Fund itself, we are working with nearly 100 partners to create a comprehensive, landscape-scale conservation strategy that addresses the health of wildlife, water and agriculture in the Gulf region.

Each year, starting with spring runoff flowing down the Mississippi River, a “dead zone” forms in the Gulf of Mexico off of the coast of Louisiana and Texas. This dead zone, technically referred to as hypoxia, or low oxygen, is the largest human-caused dead zone in the U.S.

These dead zones are mainly caused by too many nutrients entering the water. In fact, the very nutrients that foster crop production in the farmlands of the Midwestern corn belt travel downstream to cause problems in the Gulf.

GulfHypoxia Schultz-property-Ann Arbor Greenbelt Ivan LaBianca 389Runoff of nutrients from farmland in the Mississippi River Watershed is contributing to a hypoxic zone, or “dead zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico, where oxygen levels have decreased to the point that the area can no longer support aquatic life. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

Just as these nutrients feed the crops on land, they also feed phytoplankton in the water. This results in huge algae blooms, which eventually sink to the bottom of the Gulf and suck up all the oxygen there, resulting in a dead zone.

The problem is further confounded by insufficient mixing of freshwater from the Mississippi River and the Gulf's salt water, as well as the loss of coastal wetlands in Louisiana. Besides being nature's water treatment plants, these wetlands help protect coastal communities from flooding caused by hurricane storm surges.

GulfHypoxia Maurepas GardnerSean 2011 05Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area represents the largest contiguous tract of wetland forest remaining in the lower Mississippi River Alluvial Valley. Photo by Sean Gardner. Courtesy of The Conservation Fund.

While larger and more mobile animals like shrimp and fish can escape the dead zone, their smaller food supply—worms, crabs and snails—cannot. Escaping from the dead zone, fish and shrimp crowd into healthy areas, making them more susceptible to prey, like fishermen. In fact, scientists can use the location of shrimp trawlers to identify the edge of the dead zone.

Ray Herndon: Having lived in the Gulf Coast region for most of my life and having worked in the conservation field for most of my career, I am frustrated by the declining health of the Gulf of Mexico. While some impacts to the Gulf are caused by singular, out-of-control accidents like the Deepwater Horizon spill, others build over years and decades. One long-term problem that we are working to resolve stems from nutrient runoff from farms in the country’s heartland that flows into the Mississippi River and results in an area in the Gulf—equivalent in size to Connecticut + Rhode Island—that is unable to sustain life. This annual occurrence is referred to as the Gulf’s dead zone, or hypoxic area.

I would not be in the conservation business if I did not feel that it is my duty to take action, for a healthy Gulf, for a healthy river, for a healthy country. So, my resolve is to act. Not to act in a haphazard, or disjointed manner, but to act in a very strategic, and targeted way. In my work at The Conservation Fund, I seek out land conservation outcomes. The most strategic land conservation outcomes provide large landscape protection, permanent water filtration through the protection of forested wetlands, and working agricultural lands protection in support of farmers who are striving to minimize nutrients going into local waters through capturing and reusing the water on their farm.

To take these targets a step further, I rely on tools to map out exactly where the impact will be the greatest. These mapping tools can tell me where the greatest concentration of nesting habitat is for ducks, and now it can tell me how and where to deliver land conservation projects, to more effectively address nutrients washing into the Gulf’s dead zone. Through the work of my colleague, Michael Schwartz, I now have the ability to identify where best to expend the Fund’s resources, in order to maximize the benefits to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, for the benefit of all Americans.

Michael Schwartz: Like Ray, I am concerned about upstream impacts on the livelihoods of Gulf Coast fishermen, as well as the loss of vital grassland bird habitat in the Midwest. I take the latest advancements in science and geospatial technologies and use them to identify conservation opportunities that meet the needs of our conservation partners as well as colleagues at the Fund, including my coauthor.

We are currently working with the Mississippi River Basin/Gulf Hypoxia Initiative (MRB/GHI) to develop tools to identify areas in the Mississippi River Basin where conservation planning and delivery will result in multiple benefits for fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, and agricultural productivity. Determining where these benefits are aligned helps us leverage limited conservation dollars. With funding from the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers LCC, we at the Fund are providing data and mapping support to identify conservation opportunities that will have the least impact on farmland and the most benefit to the environment and water quality. MRB/GHI works with more than 100 partners in addition to the Fund, ranging from state and federal agencies to NGOs and the agricultural community.

To identify areas with the greatest alignment of water quality needs with areas of greatest conservation and water quality investment, The Conservation Fund first identified a "Water Quality Priority Zone," which is the area thought to have the greatest impact on the Gulf's dead zone. The next step was to identify and then "stack" all of the conservation opportunity areas and priority watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin. Areas with multiple conservation and watershed interests represent areas where multiple sources of funding are available. Aligning all of these interests helps to make the best use of limited public funding.

GulfHypoxia Map MRB-GHI WQPZ CFA HU8sumAreas within the Water Quality Priority Zone with higher "interests" (red areas) represent areas with the highest potential for helping to reduce the dead zone that also have multiple sources of funding available to address both habitat and water quality needs.

Interest in the decision support tools we have developed is building quickly across a broad array of groups ranging from county comprehensive plans in Indiana, habitat conservation in the floodplains of the Lower Wabash River, US FWS Gulf Restoration focal areas, and strategic growth of National Wildlife Refuges. This has also been a great opportunity to learn what other colleagues at the Fund are working on, and finding ways to integrate the delivery of strategic conservation to bring a dead zone back to life.

Figuring out how we can sustain fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, agricultural and forest production, and wildlife habitat is how The Conservation Fund keeps conservation working for America.