Clean on paper: EPAs duel over nitrogen

September 15, 2009 , The Fox Valley Villages Sun

A grasshopper rests a moment on some algae on the Fox River in Montgomery recently. Nitrogen can help algae overrun bodies of water, killing fish and upsetting ecosystems in the process. Yet, the state EPA removed nitrogen as a pollutant in its most recent report on polluted water to the federal EPA.  
(Heather Eidson/Staff Photographer)  

The reason, IEPA officials said, is that nitrogen isn’t a problem in Illinois.

Although the fertilizer run-off acts as algae food, it is only one ingredient needed for the bloated green masses of muck to over-run local lakes, streams, rivers and ponds. The state is focusing on the other ingredients.

"We were barking up the wrong tree (with nitrogen) and we were misleading by doing that," IEPA Water Quality Standards Manager Bob Mosher said.

The U.S. EPA disagrees. They know algae need a number of ingredients and conditions, but don’t think this means the state should stop reporting high-nitrogen waterways.

"Basically, we reviewed their justifications to do so and we were not convinced," said Dean Maraldo, acting chief of the U.S. EPA Region 5 Water Division’s Watersheds and Wetlands Branch.

While the feds review their decision to quash the state’s report, the issue continues downstream. The nitrogen in our water eventually makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it leads to a marine life "dead zone" the size of Massachusetts. This condition, called gulf hypoxia, is sad, the IEPA says. It’s also not their responsibility.

"I think gulf hypoxia is a good example of why we have a federal system. When things go awry across state lines, the federal system goes into effect," Mosher said. "Don’t make us put a flag on the (impaired water) list for some little creek in Illinois when we think it’s not an issue."

While the state EPA says the federal group is trying to foist its responsibilities on others and the federal EPA says the state changed the list without reason, one question remains: How do you regulate a problem that starts on the neon-green lawns of suburban subdivisions and kills marine life in the Gulf of Mexico?

"It’s hard for people to understand that what they’re doing there up by Chicago has an effect down by New Orleans," said Robert Magneon, director of the Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, which funds dead zone studies.

Your lawn vs. the eels

Algae love the nitrogen that runs off lawns into local rivers and streams. "When you over-fertilize a stream, it does the same thing it does to your grass: It turns green," said Dr. Cindy Skrukrud of the Illinois Sierra Club.

Algae love nitrogen, but they also need phosphorus. By day, the floating green muck photosynthesizes, turning sunlight into energy. Then the sun goes down.

"At night, all trees, all plants, all algae still have to survive, so they switch over and have to do respiration just like us," Skrukrud said.

This respiration sucks oxygen from the water, endangering and sometimes killing marine life. But rivers don’t stop where borders do. When the Mississippi River hits the Gulf of Mexico, it’s emptying out water collected as far north as Canada, as far east as Massachusetts and as far west as Idaho. That’s the nutrient-laden run-off from lawns and farms over 41 percent of the continental United States.

Algae and other forms of phytoplankton go ga-ga for this, blooming en masse over the gulf. Eventually, the blooms die and sink to the bottom where they’re eaten up by bacteria. So in the gulf, the oxygen is being sucked up not just by the algae but by the bacteria that gobble up dead algae. The low-oxygen "dead zone" starts on the gulf floor and moves up.

"You start to see dead animals that usually live in the sediment lying on top of the sediment," said hypoxia researcher Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

This year, the hypoxia zone is smaller — merely the size of Connecticut. But it’s also more severe. For coastal regions whose economies rely on fishing, this is an economic disaster as much as an environmental one.,EPAs-duel-over-nitrogen_au091509.article