Fertilizer runoff creates ‘Dead Zone’ in Gulf

By Gulf’s dead zone persists as government drags its feet
St. Louis Post-Dispatch; June 10, 2007


By  Bill Lambrecht

WASHINGTON — There was hope for a cure down in the Louisiana bayous even as the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone expanded like a B-movie blob.
The year was 2000 and states up and down the Mississippi River, spurred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, were coming to grips with one of America’s most vexing water quality challenges: the fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farm fields flowing hundreds of miles south to the Gulf of Mexico.

A mass of oxygen-deprived water had expanded in 1999 to a then-record 7,700 square miles, bigger than Connecticut and approaching the size of New Hampshire or Vermont. Farm chemicals from the Midwest and elsewhere were blamed in scientific studies for triggering much of the vast algae growth showing up along the Louisiana and Texas coasts and in so doing consuming oxygen.

Aquatic creatures fled or died and shrimpers went out of business.

At last, a federal-state task force was ready to act. In January 2001, in an ornate Senate hearing room, members unveiled an 11-point plan to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution running off Midwestern farms and cut the dead zone in half. The plan hinged on spending $5 billion in coming years, much of it in incentives for farmers to take land out of production and farm more carefully.

Then a new administration took over in Washington and things didn’t go as planned.

"It took them two years to decide whether they were going to continue with the task force. Then, after five years, they decided they needed to review the science," recalled Donald Scavia, who was chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration until 2004.

Late last month, a panel of independent scientists convened by the EPA issued its preliminary findings, affirming much of what had been known a decade ago — and reaching "the strong conclusion that increased nutrient loads have led to hypoxia," the low-oxygen condition causing problems in the Gulf.

The panel said the pollution was not irreversible but could take decades to fix and recommended paying farmers "to change behavior."

The scientists also warned that "extreme rapid growth of grain-based ethanol production has major water quality implications" for the Mississippi River basin and the country.

large in scope

The government’s failure to deal with the dead zone offers a cautionary tale for those banking on a federal remedy to further damage when farmers apply even more fertilizer to grow millions more acres of corn for new ethanol plants.

The dead zone in the Gulf is a problem of huge dimensions on several scores. It is the second-biggest area of oxygen-poor water in the world behind only a section of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe.

The primary source of the problem, the Mississippi River, drains more than 40 percent of the land mass of the continental United States. More than half of the nitrate load enters the Mississippi River from above the Ohio River at the tip of Illinois, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The political challenge is nearly as large in scope. To begin with, the law doesn’t regulate farm runoff except in extreme cases. Most of the problem comes from runoff far from the Gulf, and not just from farms but from urban lands and sewage treatment plants. Solutions require the involvement of many states and the powerful farm lobby, which doesn’t easily accept blame.

That’s why Louisianans like Doug Daigle were excited six years ago when a national strategy took shape.

That excitement has waned.

"We kept expecting that they (the administration) would pull this together, but step one — the resources to do it — never happened," said Daigle, who coordinates task force members along the Mississippi River.

Tracy Mehan, a St. Louis native who was the EPA’s top water official at the time, recalled struggles in his agency back then to protect programs that already existed without taking up yet another challenge.

"There was nothing driving this centrally," he said, a reference to the administration’s refusal to take charge.

Added Darrell Brown, the EPA’s chief of coastal management and the agency’s lead staff person dealing with the dead zone today: "A new administration came in with their own ideas and agendas, and it kind of fell off the side of the world."

Farm Bill hope

Once every five years, the administration and Congress negotiate a new farm bill, which provides about $20 billion for farm programs, including conservation. A new farm bill will be considered in earnest this summer, offering a new opportunity to bolster water quality programs that could help stem the flow of nutrient pollution in the Midwest and thus shrink the size of the dead zone.

At the same time, the White House and several members of Congress are pushing for dramatic increases in the nation’s use of ethanol and other renewable fuels as much as 35 billion gallons, a seven-fold increase, in a decade.

Yet it is uncertain how official Washington will respond to the threats posed by the ethanol boom.

This year, as ethanol production and corn plantings soared, budget cuts precluded new enrollments permitted in the Conservation Security Program, one of the initiatives to reward farmers for environmental successes.

But the House version of a new farm bill does not provide for expanding the program until 2012.

Ken Cook is president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington nonprofit that has publicized the expansion of the dead zone and the threat to drinking water from nutrient pollution. Cook believes that Congress ought to go so far as to require nutrient management programs for farmers to qualify for the subsidy payments and price supports they receive.

"You have to say that part-and-parcel to this ethanol expansion, there has to be much more thoughtful, well-funded and better-targeted water quality programs," he said.

In Europe, farmers subject to unannounced inspections can be penalized for violating nitrogen runoff rules with deductions from their crop subsidies.

Meanwhile, researchers like R. Eugene Turner, who has measured the dead zone pollution since the 1990s, worry what will be happening to the dead zone unless the government gets serious about stanching the flow of nutrient pollution from farms.

"I expect it will get worse," said Turner, a professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University. 

blambrecht@post-dispatch.com | 202-298-6880