In early March, I attended a workshop on the Mississippi River Basin/Gulf Hypoxia Initiative project, which has been expertly led by our LCC neighbors to the north, the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie & Big Rivers LCC, since 2013. The workshop was a culmination of more than 2 years of hard work, in which representatives from 7 LCCs spanning the enormous Mississippi River Basin, and from across a broad spectrum of interests in Gulf Hypoxia, worked to integrate fish and wildlife interests into nutrient reduction strategies that are aimed at reducing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC has had a longstanding interest in Gulf Hypoxia, dating all the way back to the spring of 2012, when the GCPO LCC Steering Committee determined that Gulf Hypoxia was an issue of importance, and directed that the Adaptation Science Management Team “report back to the Steering Committee on how the issues of nutrient management/water quality, wetland restoration, and ecosystem services within the GCPO LCC landscape should be addressed collectively to have the greatest impact on the Gulf, particularly with respect to hypoxia. These three issues should be considered part of a larger set of issues that the ASMT should address in answering the question, “What kinds of landscape planning tools would be appropriate for tackling these issues across the entire LCC?” We haven’t yet reported back to the Steering Committee, but thanks to the work of the MRB/GHI project, we should be able to take the next steps towards that report in the not too distant future.
One of the products unveiled at the MRB/GHI Workshop was a new Precision Conservation Blueprint tool, which was developed by Michael Schwartz of The Conservation Fund. This geospatial tool, which can be accessed through Databasin, contains a wealth of geospatial products, including water quality layers, agricultural system layers, geophysical layers, fish & wildlife focal areas, and many others. All told, over 100 different geospatial layers are organized within the MRB/GHI group, making it easy for Databasin users to locate the datasets that they’re most interested in. And, because it’s in Databasin, it’s super easy to create custom maps and to add other geospatial layers that might be useful for your own use. For instance, in the GCPO LCC, we have a new Draft Blueprint of our 9 priority habitat systems. If I’m interested in overlaying the Draft Forested Wetlands Blueprint layer on top of the MRB/GHI Focus Area layer, it's a very simple process. The beauty of Databasin is its easy access to an enormous number of datasets (at last count, over 14,000), and you don't have to be an expert in GIS to use it.
Hypoxia is one of those tough issues that's difficult to get your mind totally around, but when you start to think about it deeply, you come to understand that it is a systems-scale issue that is connected to some really powerful drivers. My own understanding on hypoxia has been re-shaped by this more comprehensive perspective of systems-scale thinking. An article I read in Scientific American about a year ago, It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System, helped me come to a new understanding: Hypoxia is not the real problem, but really a symptom of a much larger systemic issue, with connections to energy policy, agricultural economic policies, and even health care. Ultimately, the solutions to hypoxia will be developed through changes to those systems. There is simply too much money being pumped into those other systems to be countered by the relatively small amount of conservation dollars that are being spent to achieve our nutrient reduction targets.
So where does this leave us with regard to hypoxia and fish & wildlife objectives in the GCPO? When we first started this effort, our goal was to integrate fish & wildlife habitat objectives into water quality solutions that are focused both on agricultural systems, and targeted in watersheds that contribute significantly to Gulf hypoxia. I think that approach is still correct, and I think that we can demonstrate how fish & wildlife habitat restoration can provide benefits in the reduction of nutrient loads in our streams and rivers, especially at the local watershed scale. We also need to understand if nutrient reduction will improve fish & wildlife habitats, especially for aquatic organisms. All of these can be valuable outcomes of Mississippi River Basin/Gulf Hypoxia project, and will help us to better target our conservation dollars into areas where we can realize multiple benefits. But, as it relates to Gulf Hypoxia, if the goal is still to reduce the hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 km2 by 2035, then it’s clear to me that the focus will have to be re-directed to those larger, systems-scale issues, like energy policy and food production systems. That’s not impossible to accomplish, for our nation has made large-scale transformations before, when we recognized the true nature of the problem. We have done it before, and we’ll do it again. But it will require a transformation in thinking and behavior, and a society that demands a more sustainable agricultural and energy system than we currently have.