DEAD ZONE: Runoff from Midwest farms plagues GulfBy Perry Beeman Gannett, theNewsStar.com
3 November 2012
CHAUVIN — For shrimpers, crabbers and oystermen who work these waters, locating their harvest has become an increasingly taxing game of hide-and-seek.
WHAT IS HYPOXIA?
Hypoxia is the low-oxygen condition that sends shrimp and crabs migrating in search of more hospitable waters.
When the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers spill into the Gulf, fresh water forms a layer on top of the salt water, acting like a lid that keeps surface oxygen from reaching deep water. In a typical year, that means the hypoxia, or low oxygen, lasts in the deep water from spring into fall.
Waters with dissolved oxygen of less that 2 milligrams per liter are considered hypoxic.
SHRIMP PRICES TUMBLE
A sign at Martin’s Fresh Shrimp in Chauvin, La., last summer encouraged people to buy local shrimp, not imports that account for 90 percent of the U.S. market.
Shrimpers blame imports from China, Vietnam and elsewhere for depressing prices.
Shrimpers in July were getting about $3 a pound for their catch. Years ago, wholesalers were paying as much as $9 a pound.
Some Louisiana farmers reduce runoff to trickle
- Since the dead zone’s discovery four decades ago, the federal government has spent billions of dollars — no one can say exactly how much — to study its origins and reduce its impact. But the toxic flow of nitrates has increased — along with the average size of the dead zone.
- In Iowa alone, farmers have received $3.3 billion in federal payments since 1995 from the Conservation Reserve Program. The program is intended to reduce runoff and erosion and preserve wildlife habitat by encouraging land owners not to plant crops on land most vulnerable to erosion.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent another $223 million over the past two years on water quality improvement projects in Iowa and other states in the Mississippi River watershed.
Yet despite such efforts, the bond of river and nature between Iowa and Louisiana has grown ever more strained: What helps one crop thrive causes the other to move on or die.
Among the findings:
» Nine states account for 75 percent of the nitrates flowing into the Gulf. More than 11 percent of that comes from Iowa, making it and Illinois, which contributes more than 16 percent, the two largest sources.
» The vast majority of that nitrate pollution — about 70 percent — is the result of agricultural runoff, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And as demand for corn has soared, farmers have faced increasing pressure to plant more acres and use more fertilizer.
» Voluntary programs, including some backed with billions in federal subsidies, have failed to stem the fertilizer runoff rushing downstream to Louisiana. Even as efforts were under way to reduce runoff 45 percent by 2015, nitrate levels have instead jumped another 10 percent since 1980.
» Some of Iowa’s neighboring states — Minnesota and Wisconsin among them — limit how much nitrogen or phosphorus can enter waterways. Iowa’s political leaders, farm organizations and many individual farmers have opposed similar restrictions.
To be sure, few people here — from the governor to the Gulf fishermen whose livelihoods are in jeopardy — underestimate the importance of agriculture throughout the Midwest. They understand the region feeds the nation.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he’d like to see more progress, but he stopped short of calling for tough regulations.
Jindal said restoring the Gulf will take cooperation among the states.
"I think it’s a national treasure we all need to be worried about," he said. "We all have to work together on using the best science, the best techniques when it comes to soil management. That’s good for farmers as well. There are things we all can do."
Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad worries about the damage that could do to agriculture, a vital part of the state’s economy.
"We want to do all that we can," said Branstad, a Republican. "But we have to be careful of unintended consequences of overreaction and over-regulation. That can be devastating."
Shrimp vs. corn
Former shrimper Dirk Guidry sold his boat and opened a pizza restaurant in this town of 2,900 people, about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans.
He grudgingly accepts the economic and political realities facing many of his friends and neighbors still in the shrimping business.
"Corn is a more important crop in the U.S. than shrimp. You have to have corn, but you don’t have to have shrimp," said Guidry, 56. "But that has an effect on us. I don’t think people in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska understand that."
Some years the problem is worse than others. Thanks to the prolonged drought that has gripped the Midwest and reduced the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to relative trickles in places, this year’s dead zone is the fourth-smallest on record.
Even so, the Gulf hypoxic zone in July measured 2,889 square miles. That’s the equivalent of about 5,550 average-sized Iowa farms of 333 acres.
It’s also about half again larger than the 1,930-square-mile target that a federal task force in 2001 hoped could be achieved by 2015. Even the most hopeful scientists and researchers now admit that goal is beyond reach.
"We obviously aren’t going to get there," said Nancy Rabalais, an aquatic scientist who has studied the Gulf dead zone since 1985 for the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.
Shrimpers’ crop shrinking
The runoff from Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest has set in motion profound consequences in the Gulf of Mexico for commercial fishermen and the related industries they have spawned.
The Gulf is the nation’s most productive shrimping area, producing 82 percent of the U.S. total in 2010, worth $340 million at the dock, federal records show. Louisiana accounts for more of the haul than any other state, about $130 million annually.
Finfish and shellfish landed by commercial fishermen total about $660 million a year. It’s also a huge part of the region’s recreational and tourism industry. Anglers tallied 21 million trips in 2010, pulling some 145 million fish weighing a combined 59 million pounds from the Gulf and surrounding waters, federal data show.
And just as Iowa corn growers spin off jobs in related businesses, the seafood industry also has its own processors, distributors and the like. The National Marine Fisheries Service has reported that the fisheries of the Gulf and bordering waters generate about $10.5 billion in sales and $5.6 billion in income annually, supporting 200,000 jobs.
Louisiana brown shrimp landings fell from 72 million pounds in 1990 to 17 million in 2010, according to the most recent available data.
As shellfish migrate in search of waters containing more oxygen, shrimpers such as Darren Martin must venture farther out to sea in pursuit of his catch.
"Unlike a farmer, we can’t see the crop," said Martin, 46, who’s been shrimping nearly all his life. "If you’re used to going to a certain area, and you go out and the dead zone is there, you’re in trouble."
The farther shrimp boats must go, the more shrimpers pay in fuel and labor costs. Those who cast their nets into empty waters stand to lose as much as $2,000 a day.
Like many here, Martin shrugs off what the changes have meant for his livelihood with an it-is-what-it-is kind of stoicism not unlike an Iowa farmer talking about a corn crop threatened by drought.
"The saying goes: ‘Everything good comes down the Mississippi — and so does everything bad,’" Martin said.
Farmer: Don’t hurt us to help them
Crop and animal production is a $7.4 billion industry in Iowa, accounting for more than 5 percent of the state’s gross domestic product annually.
But Iowa also is home to rivers that are among the nation’s biggest contributors of Gulf-bound nitrates into the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, fertilizer usage, after falling in the 1990s, continues to rise in Iowa and elsewhere. Long term, use is up. It’s a tough trend to follow, because no one tracks manure applications.
Five decades ago, nitrogen fertilizer applications in the Mississippi Basin totaled less than 1 million metric tons a year. Today’s figure: 6 million metric tons. The increase has come despite huge price increases for anhydrous ammonia, one of the commonly used fertilizers. It now costs nearly $800 a ton — about double the cost in 2004.
One trade group, the Fertilizer Institute, suggests that farmers may be using more fertilizer because they are planting more corn acres and the new hybrids demand more nitrogen.
"Things will swing with the number of corn acres, and improved seeds might need a little more fertilizer," said spokeswoman Kathy Mathers.
Bruce Rohwer, president of the 6,000-member Iowa Corn Growers Association, farms two miles north of Paullina in northwest Iowa since 1975.
He wants the Louisiana shrimpers — and Iowans, for that matter — to know that farmers have no reason to intentionally over-fertilize their fields.
"It is cash out of your pocket," said Rohwer, 60. "It’s the note at the bank to put nutrients on the ground for the next year’s crop. It is not in our interest for any of that to get away."