Groups gauging Ohio River’s pollution levels

By James Mayse, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
26 January 2010

Jan. 25–Environmental groups in a number of states, including Kentucky, are engaged in a lengthy project to determine how runoff from farm operations is making its way to the Ohio River.

The groups are testing for nitrogen and phosphorus in creeks and tributaries that connect with the Ohio River. Nitrogen is a common corn fertilizer, while phosphorus is found in animal manure, which is also used to fertilize fields.

Nitrogen and phosphorus in the Ohio eventually makes their way into the Mississippi River and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico. Both nitrogen and phosphorus are believed be causes of the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone," a low-oxygen area were aquatic life cannot live.

Hank Graddy, chairman of the Water Watch of Kentucky water-monitoring program, said the goal is to determine the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus making its way into the river.

Last year, the state’s Nitrogen and Phosphorus Team took water samples from 44 sites, including some in the Owensboro area.

The Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission analyzed the water samples collected by the volunteers of the Kentucky Nitrogen and Phosphorus team.

"The data was gathered and handed to ORSANCO, and they (took) our data and gave us a report," Graddy said.

Major waterways that contribute water to the Ohio River — such as the Licking and Kentucky rivers — did not show "significantly high" levels of either nitrogen or phosphorus, Graddy said. But both substances were present, which indicates the chemicals do enter the Ohio from those sources.

"If you multiply the flow with the results, it supported the conclusion … that they contribute to nitrogen and phosphorus going into the Mississippi," Graddy said.

In Daviess County, two creeks stood out "like a sore thumb" in nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations. But, Graddy said, "Those streams are fairly small flow, so they won’t be major contributors" to the Ohio.

Lee Dew, testing coordinator for Sierra Club Water Sentinels and Tradewater/Lower Green River Watershed Watch, said the group is trying to gauge where nitrogen and phosphorus are entering the water across the entire Mississippi watershed.

"In the past, when people talked about the ‘dead zone,’ they blamed Iowa and Illinois," Dew said. But the Mississippi watershed stretches across much of the middle United States, including most of the upper Midwest, the Plains states and southern states such as Arkansas and Texas.

"Every county in the Mississippi valley that grows corn is a contributor, and any county that has nitrogen runoff is a contributor," Dew said. "There is no action that doesn’t have consequences. Everything we do affects the waterways, for which we pay a price."

The "dead zone" affects commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and reduces shrimp and oyster populations, Dew said.

Graddy said more water samples will be taken this summer. When enough data has been collected that conclusions can be reached, the findings will be presented to organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Division of Water.

"We feel pretty confident the bulk of the problem … is from row crops and livestock," Graddy said. "Kentucky is a major contributor of the phosphorus loading and a major contributor of the nitrogen loading."

James Mayse, 691-7303,