Fertilizer runoff from Midwest creates a barren sea

Nutrients actually feed 'Dead Zone' in Gulf

? The Dead Zone.

Not the Stephen King thriller, but an environmental horror story, lies beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Because of oxygen depleted from the water, an area that grows in the warm gulf waters every summer, at times to the size of New Jersey, is unable to sustain life.

What causes this?

Researchers say it is heartland farmers, including those in Kansas, who feed the nation producing corn and soybeans.

Nutrients from millions of tons of fertilizers the farmers use run off into the watersheds that feed the Mississippi River and are washed into the Gulf.

There, the nutrients feed algae. When those organisms die, the decaying process reduces oxygen levels in the bottom waters. Any organism that can’t swim out of the area dies. Nothing lives.

Bruce A. Johanning walks near a buffer strip for his crops in Stull. A buffer strip acts as a filter for pesticides before they reach the creek. Chemical runoff making its way to the Gulf of Mexico has created a large area where little sea life can be sustained.

First discovered in 1974 in the Gulf, the phenomenon is called hypoxia and usually occurs in the summer months before dissipating in the fall, when more oxygen-rich surface waters and bottom waters mix.

“Fertilizer needs to stop from going into the streams,” said Mike Hayden, a former Kansas governor who served on the Pew Oceans Commission, an independent policy group that studied the problem.

In 2002, the commission issued a report that said Midwestern agriculture was contributing significantly to the Dead Zone that sits off the coast of Louisiana in the middle of some of the most important recreational and commercial fisheries in the nation.

Reduction plans

The Mississippi River basin – the third largest in the world – drains 31 states, 40 percent of the continental United States. Drainage from Kansas enters the Gulf via the Missouri and Arkansas drainage basins, which feed to the Mississippi.

Hayden, who now serves as secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said most people don’t understand the effects of runoff downstream.

“Their eyes generally glaze over,” when you talk about it, he said.

The federal government has proposed plans for reducing hypoxia through voluntary incentives. That is in keeping with policies where runoff pollution from farm sources are largely unregulated.

The Mississippi River-Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force has set a target of reducing the Dead Zone by 30 percent.

“We are in the midst of looking at the action plan developed in 2001 and reassessing those actions and determining whether they are making a difference and whether EPA and the states need to tweak them,” said Maureen Tooke, who is an EPA spokeswoman for the task force.

There are practices that can be used to stop the runoff, experts say.

Nancy Rabalais, a professor with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Dead Zone expert who measures and records its extent, said farmers and researchers throughout the country are trying different ways to reduce nutrient runoff, such as establishing wetlands as filtering systems.

“There are all kinds of things that they’re trying,” Rabalais said.

“The whole issue revolves around too many nutrients, and they are just as harmful to freshwater systems in Kansas, Iowa and Illinois as they are to the marine systems in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.

Taking land on the banks of streams out of production and planting native grasses and trees there filters the runoff and acts as a natural buffer zone.

“Water quality improves dramatically,” said Clyde Mermis, district conservationist in Douglas County with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

‘We all live downstream’

The federal government has a program that pays farmers to stop farming up to the stream banks and create buffers.

The government will pay the farmer rent for the land and most of the cost of replanting the area with native plants.

“We try to get it back to the way Mother Nature had it thousands of years ago,” Mermis said.

Many farmers resist participating because they say their lowlands nearest a stream are usually their most productive, he said.

But, he said, the rental payments and cost-sharing usually provide more money to the farmer than the crop.

“The economics are there, and the environment is there,” Mermis said. Several calls to federal officials to find out the extent of the program in northeast Kansas went unanswered.

Bruce A. Johanning, a farmer from Lawrence, participates in the program and has developed a buffer on his property in Stull.

His corn crops go right up to the buffer of grasses and trees.

“It’s good for both the environment and the farmer,” Johanning said.

Hayden said he hoped more farmers would take advantage of such programs to shrink the size of the Dead Zone.

“The problem is clearly coming from agriculture and clearly coming from the cornbelt. We all have an obligation. We all live downstream,” he said.