Archive for Monday, September 26, 2005

Fertilizer runoff from Midwest creates a barren sea

Nutrients actually feed ‘Dead Zone’ in Gulf

September 26, 2005, 12:00 a.m. Updated September 26, 2005, 11:23 a.m.


— 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.

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.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 12 years, 5 months ago

Not a single post saying that this either isn't happening or that it doesn't matter if it is.

Come on you knee-jerk debunkers-- get with it!!

harrierist 12 years, 5 months ago

I would say more of the nutrients are coming from the Valley of Texas, near the Rio Grande than coming from the Mississippi. There are miles of farming land down their that are irrigated and use tons of ferlizer. And the Rio Grande dumps into the Gulf at Brownsville. Their are just miles of desert arid land, chalked full of farmer feed fertilzer so that melons, corn and citrus crops can grow, with no buffer zones. That irrigated water runoff is going to go in to the Rio Grande, I can see that being a possiblity. But I doubt excess nutrients from a Wheat farm in Hays Kansas is going to find its way to the Mississippi. Other wise we'd see lakes in Southern Kansas and Oklahoma with the same problem.

glockenspiel 12 years, 5 months ago

You might be right about the Valley of Texas problem, but the dead zone is located at the mouth of the mississippi river, hundreds of miles from where the Rio Grande river empties.

BTW...feces makes great fertilizer. Maybe the problem is caused by the fact that we are dumping tons of human waste into the water.

kansasag 12 years, 5 months ago

Where to begin?
1) Photo Caption Correction: "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." - The article itself says that hypoxia comes from Nitrogen runoff - i.e. fertilizer. Although buffer strips filter pesticides as well, pesticides have nothing to do with this issue. The Journal World should issue a correction.

kansasag 12 years, 5 months ago

2) What is not discussed much in the story is the issue of stratification. During the summer, the fresh water from the Mississippi River does not mix with the salt water from the Gulf forming a seal. This nutrient rich fresh water causes the algae growth which leads to the hypoxia. When fall comes and the Gulf is not as calm as it is in the summer, the waters naturally mix and the problem goes away until the next summer.

kansasag 12 years, 5 months ago

3) There are several causes of hypoxia, not just agriculture. Other contributing factors are stratification, channelization of the river for flood control and navigation, organic carbon carried by the river, and increased rainfall in the midwest creating greater flows of fresh water into the Gulf. The Environmental Institute at the University of Alabama did a study on this and their report can be found at .

kansasag 12 years, 5 months ago

4) The EPA has identified 3 different causes for hypoxia yet has only addressed agriculture for its solution. Dealing with only agriculture will most likely lead to failure.

5) Perhaps if the federal government would focus money on buffer zones as opposed to idling crop land to create better hunting habitats, there would not be a need for more federal money to solve this problem.

kansasag 12 years, 5 months ago

6) According to the USGS, 50% of the Nitrogen in the Mississippi is from Fertilizer and Mineralized Soil Nitrogen. 15% is from animal manure, 11% from Municipal and Industrial Point Sources, and 24% from Erosion.

kansasag 12 years, 5 months ago

7) As far as Kansas goes, very little of the Nitrogen is from Kansas. The Arkansas-Red-White River Basin which includes all of Oklahoma and parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas contribute 7% of the agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River. The Missouri River Basin contributes 15% and it includes the rest of Kansas, all of Nebraska, and South Dakota, and parts of Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. As you can see, Kansas probably can account for maybe 1% of the Nitrogen runoff.

8) Taking all of these facts into consideration, Kansas farmers can still do a better job of reducing runoff by implementing Best Management Practices. They should ensure that they are applying the right product for their crop at the right time, in the right place and at the right rate. This precision agriculture makes farming more profitable for the farmer as well as improving crop yields and reducing potential environmental damage. Perhaps the Kansas Legislature will consider giving a tax break to farmers and agribusinesses who purchase precision agriculture equipment.

parttimer 12 years, 5 months ago

You also must recognize that farmers are not the only ones using fertilizer. Fertilizer is also spread on lawns to make the grass grow greener, and the runoff can go directly from the lawn to a storm sewer and straight to the river. How about a buffer strip around the lawn as well? We are ALL downstream.

Sandra Willis 12 years, 5 months ago

hehehe .. the only fertilizer i use on my lawn is mulch, made from the grass clippings and leaves from my lawn ... and i share it with others who need it also. As a farmer's daughter ... it only makes sense. bodan

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