Dead zone in Gulf due to increased fertilizer runoff

By Megan Campbell; January 2, 2008

Being green may sound like a good idea for our environment, but what if it came with a price?

Scientists in Central Texas are investigating a growing problem threatening the marine life of our Gulf Coast.

Ask anyone about the price of corn, and you’ll probably get, well, an earful.

Shopper Mary Rodriguez says, "It used to be five for a dollar… I’m looking at the price and saying two is enough."

While customers may be buying less, alternative fuel companies are buying more.

Ringing up high prospects for corn farmers in the Midwest, but at a possible cost to the Gulf Coast.

Corn may be like gold to farmers. With the high prices they’re getting, they’re planting more of it, and that means more nitrogen from the fertilizer is going into the ground and our water.

Dr. Steve Dimarco of Texas A&M University says, "The dead zone could perhaps get more intense."

Corn fertilizer could feed the dead zone, something that appeared off the coast this summer. It was a 17-hundred square-mile area of oxygen-depleted water.

Dr. Dimarco investigated, "If oxygen is depleted then fish, shrimp, clams, anything that needs oxygen to breathe, will be affected."

This summer, all that rain we had created a stifling layer of fresh water on top of the salt. Next year, nitrogen from corn crops could increase the size of the dead zone or make it stick around longer.

"If the dead zone lasts the whole year because of more severe conditions that could be a real problem to the shrimping industry off of Texas and Louisiana," Dr. Dimarco says.

A boon to farmers may not help marine life. It weighed heavily on one customer.

Jessica Loretto says, "It makes me think. I really don’t want to buy [corn] anymore."

She put all of her corn back. She didn’t want to support one resource at the expense of another.

Right now, storms that come through break up the dead zone and give marine life time to recover. Experts will be carefully watching the effects of corn fertilizer on the Gulf Coast.

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