Report highlights reasons

Monday, September 21, 2009

Minnesota Pilot-Independent, Babe Winkelman

Published June 19, 2006

What grows larger with each passing summer and is roughly the size of New Jersey?

The answer: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the world's most dynamic fisheries.

Indeed, sometime this summer, the dead or hypoxic zone will form off the coast of Louisiana, as it has for roughly two decades. In the last five years, the oxygen-starved area has averaged around 6,000 square miles. Some estimates have had it as large as 8,000 square miles.

For years, most researchers believed that agricultural runoff, particularly above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, produces the nitrogen that feeds the Gulf's dead zone. Nutrient overload feeds massive algae blooms that eventually die and decay and rob the water of life-sustaining oxygen. Little or no marine life can survive in the dead zone. Fish either relocate or die.

A new report by the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) sheds more light on the growing dead zone - its causes, its cures and its long-term ramifications if policy changes aren't adopted to quell the problem. It should be required reading for politicians who reside in the 31-state Mississippi River basin.

Calling it one of the most vexing environmental problems facing America, the EWG analysis shows that at current prices, "farmers flush more than one-third of a billion dollars of nitrogen fertilizer down the Mississippi River each spring," responsible for more than 70 percent of the total nitrate pollution entering the Gulf in the crucial spring months prior to the formation of the dead zone. By contrast, municipal sewage accounts for about 11 percent, animal waste about 12 percent, and atmospheric deposition about 6 percent, according to the study.

Most interestingly, the study found that the vast majority of fertilizer pollution comes from a "relatively small area of heavily subsidized cropland (see the Corn Belt of the Midwest) along the Mississippi and its tributaries where taxpayer-funded commodity spending overwhelms water quality-related conservation spending by more than 500 to 1."

"You could say that American taxpayers are paying for the polluting of our waters," said Mary Booth, an ecologist with the EWG, referring to the connection between farm subsidies, increased fertilizer inputs and the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The EWG analysis makes a compelling case that more federal money should be shifted from farm subsidies to conservation programs in the regions that contribute the most fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi River. In fact, according to Booth, thousands of farmers have been denied funding for conservation programs because there simply wasn't enough money to pay them.

"The demand is there for these federal conservation programs," said Booth.

Indeed, Booth said that shifting a modest portion of commodity subsidies into programs that encourage more careful fertilizer use, wetland restoration and the planting of streamside buffers of grass and trees to absorb runoff could reduce dead zone pollution significantly while also boosting the bottom line for smaller, family farms.

"Increased funding for conservation programs could be targeted in a common-sense way to minimize the chemical pollution that contributes to the dead zone," she said. "The problem can be mitigated."

For the Gulf's $800 million fishing industry, the stakes are high. Officials say that dead zone pollution has hurt shrimp production and undoubtedly degraded habitat for red snapper, tuna and other commercially harvested fish. The impacts to sport fishing are also a serious source of concern, officials say.

The sad fact is this. Throughout the Mississippi River basin, we've thrown away our last line of defense against chemicals entering our waterways - wetlands. In Illinois, where corn is planted wall to wall, about 90 percent of the state's original wetlands have been drained.

In four other Midwestern states - Iowa, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio - more than 85 percent of their original wetlands have been lost.

Wetlands are nature's wastewater treatment plants, filtering pollutants such as nitrogen fertilizer and improving water quality for fish, wildlife and public health. But as the EWG study points out, in 2004, 2,450 farmers were unable to enroll 321,000 acres into the popular Wetlands Reserve Program.

The reason: a $411 million shortfall in funding for the program. Here again, according to Booth, the overall dead zone program is fixable. She says a combination of improved conservation practices on as little as 3 percent of the land area of the Mississippi River basin "would dramatically reduce nitrate loading into the river, its tributaries and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico," where the dead zone will likely grow to the size of New Jersey this summer.

The big question is this: Will our policy-makers heed the report's advice and fix the problem? Stay tuned.


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