It is no longer news that Midwest farmers are contributing to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that is roughly the size of New Jersey.
Scientists confirmed in 2001 that polluted runoff from farmland is the primary cause of a 5,000-square-mile zone of water where oxygen levels are simply too low to support marine life.
What is news is that the sea is apparently fighting back.
This summer, the number of shark attacks along the coast of Texas grew dramatically, according to state wildlife officials. They speculate that oxygen-deprived sharks are swimming closer to shore to avoid the 5,000 square-mile area of hypoxia.
Then again, the sharks may simply be angry that that little effort has been made to reduce the size of the world’s best-known dead zone.
A landmark “action plan” developed by a White House task force of state and federal officials and scientists in 2001 called for the development of monitoring programs, better coordination among officials in the Mississippi’s sub-basins, integrated budgets for federal agencies, widespread wetlands restoration and new incentives for farmers to use fertilizer with greater care.
At the time, the action plan received international attention. But, nearly four years later, many of the recommendations have been ignored or, at best, partially implemented.
In particular, efforts to restore wetlands to intercept and filter polluted runoff have declined as Congress has cut funding for major wetland restoration programs, and states have faced serious deficits.
“The vast majority of farmers offering to restore wetlands have been turned away because of funding constraints,” said Mark Beorkrem, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a group representing farmers and environmentalists.
“If the funds were available, farmers in Illinois would restore more than 20,000 acres of wetlands tomorrow,” he said. “It’s tragic: Farmers are willing to do their part, but the Congress obviously has other priorities.”
Overall, farmers in Illinois and other states draining into the Mississippi River have offered to restore more than 500,000 acres of wetlands through the Wetlands Reserve Program, a voluntary program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said. But, they have been rejected because Congress has cut funding for the popular program.
Restoring lost wetlands was the centerpiece of the action plan, which concluded that nitrogen and phosphorous—nutrients found in fertilizers and animal waste—were the primary cause of the dead zone.
Although the size of the dead zone has varied from year to year, the amount of pollution reaching the Mississippi has steadily increased since the 1950s.
Parts of 37 states and two Canadian provinces drain into the Mississippi.
But, most of the nitrogen and phosphorous reaching the Gulf originates on farm fields and feedlots— and farms in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio are disproportionate contributors, according to the 2001 task force.
About 90 percent of the nitrogen reaching the Gulf comes from nonpoint sources such as farms, and 56 percent enters the Mississippi above the river’s confluence with the Ohio River, studies show.
Reducing nitrogen loads by 20–30 percent would reduce the size of the dead zone anywhere from 15–50 percent, depending upon other factors. The dead zone peaked in size at more than 8,000 square miles in the late 1990s, but has shrunk to slightly more than 5,000 square miles in recent years.
Nitrogen and phosphorous trigger the growth of algae that consume oxygen as they decompose. Oxygen levels in the “dead zone” fall too low to support marine life, killing some species and dislocating others.
The other major recommendations of the 2001 task force have also been ignored, according to officials and scientists who served on the task force.
Little progress has been made to establish committees from each of the river’s six major basins—such as the Missouri, Ohio and Upper Mississippi river basins—to develop nutrient reduction targets and strategies to meet those targets.
Work to analyze the effects of factories, wastewater plants and other “point sources” of pollution has yet to be completed, said Jim Giattina, an EPA official who worked on the plan. No coordinated effort has been made to reduce those discharges, he added.
Scientists have developed a sophisticated research and monitoring strategy—another central recommendation of the 2001 task force—but actual spending on research and basin monitoring has been drastically cut.
“If anything, our capacity to monitor the Mississippi has diminished,” Giattina said.
Senate Republicans blocked House efforts to create a regional monitoring network to identify major sources of nutrients, and no effort has been made to expand monitoring of the dead zone itself.
One recommendation has been implemented—greater incentives to use fertilizers with more care. The 2002 Farm Bill greatly expanded an existing incentive program and created a new program, in part, to help farmers address existing and proposed water quality regulations.
But, those funds have been cut as well, and four out of five farmers offering to improve water quality are rejected because of insufficient funds.
“Funding continues to be the biggest question mark,” said Doug Daigle of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, an environmental group.
He said officials have met and developed plans but lack the resources needed to take the next step.
The voluntary conservation programs are popular with farmers who “are concerned that the regulatory hammer is going to fall on them,” said one lobbyist for Iowa farmers.
They worry that states will eventually have to develop pollution budgets for polluted rivers—called total maximum daily loads —and that farmers will be ordered to cut back on their fertilizer applications, he said.
Many farmers are already taking steps to reduce their fertilizer applications—partly out of fear of regulation and partly because they can spend less on fertilizer and grow just as much corn.
But, farmers are also raising new concerns that dead zone science is flawed.
Some farm groups seized on a controversial draft EPA report that suggested that phosphorus may play a larger role in the fate of the Gulf than was previously estimated. The president of the Farm Bureau complained that significant resources had been spent “on the wrong problem.”
“We recognize this internal EPA study is contentious, but the data is compelling and represents a shift in thinking,” said Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman. “If the conclusions of the earlier assessment were flawed, it follows that the nitrogen control and management measures imposed on farmers and ranchers were misdirected. Significant public and private resources have been spent solving the wrong problem.
“The picture now looks considerably different from what farmers and ranchers were earlier led to believe,” he said.
But, EPA officials said the draft report had been improperly leaked before an internal peer review had been completed. “One individual drew some early conclusions” and circulated the draft outside the federal agency, and the draft report is not “the agency’s final word,” said Jim Giattina, an EPA official. “It’s premature to draw conclusions before peer review.”
The author of the report no longer works for the EPA.
EPA officials noted that nitrogen found in fertilizer and manure remains a primary cause of the dead zone, and added that they have long advocated efforts to tackle both of the major nutrients contributing the algae blooms that eventually reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the bottom of the Gulf.
“Phosphorous, as well as nitrogen, play a role in the formation of hypoxia,” Giattina said.
But, the draft report suggests that a major focus on phosphorous may provide more results at less cost. The report notes that algae production is lower when nitrogen and phosphorous occur in a 16-to-1 ratio—what scientists called the “Redfield ratio.”
Because so much more nitrogen is washed into the Gulf, the study suggests that it may be easier to cut phosphorous discharges—and effectively starve the algae—than to cut nitrogen loadings.
But Giattina noted that phosphorous appears to be important to algae production near the mouth of the Mississippi—which is still mostly freshwater—than in the rest of the Gulf.
That is, in the eastern part of the Gulf, algae production is driven by phosphorous; in the western, marine waters of the Gulf, algae production is driven by nitrogen levels.
“We are dealing with a system that is overloaded with nitrogen and phosphorous,” he said.
Simply reducing phosphorous might change the kind of algae found in the Gulf, not necessarily the amount, he added.
At the same time, new computer models indicate that reducing nitrogen in the Mississippi by 30 percent won’t be enough to shrink the dead zone to a five-year running average of 1,900 square miles. A better goal, according to the scientists from the University of Michigan and Louisiana State University, is a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen entering the Gulf.
The net effect is that the seemingly sound science underlying the dead zone action plan—considered one of the great achievements of the 2001 report —is under attack from all sides. The task force has begun to revisit the recommendations of the 2001 plan, including the underlying science.
“No one really wants to argue about the science,” said Beorkrem of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. “Farmers, environmentalists, scientists—most of us would rather focus on giving producers the tools they need to get the job done.”
Scott Faber is a writer living in the District of Columbia.