Indiana among top Gulf pollutersBy Philip Brasherand Maureen Groppe, Gannett News Service
The Indianapolis Star, February 5, 2008
WASHINGTON — Farms in Indiana and eight other states cause most of the pollution that creates a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, a new government study says.
The study by the U.S. Geological Survey also says that manure runoff from pasture, rangeland and feedlots is a bigger contributor to the problem than previously thought.
The dead zone, which lies along the coast of Louisiana and Texas, is created in the summer when phosphorus and nitrogen flow out of the Mississippi River and encourage the growth of algae in the Gulf. The algae growth robs the water of oxygen, forcing fish, shrimp, crabs and other sea life from the region.
Fertilizer runoff from corn and soybean farms in the Midwest and South is the largest source of nitrogen that reaches the Gulf and a leading source of phosphorus.
Scientists worry that production of biofuels will make the problem worse, as farmers increase corn acreage and nitrogen fertilizer to keep up with the demand for ethanol.
"The potential for it to get worse before it gets better is probably there," said Ron Turco, an agronomy professor at Purdue University who was involved in a Department of Agriculture study of the issue about a decade ago. "More corn means more fertilizer."
Indiana farmers planted 6.5 million acres of corn last year, an 18 percent increase from 2006.
In addition to increased production, he said, there are fewer wetlands, which would slow the fertilizer-laden runoff and filter out some of the nutrients before they reach the Gulf.
"The important thing is, the problem is still here even though we’ve known about it for a while," Turco said. Measurements of the dead zone were first made in 1985.
"We really haven’t provided solutions to the problem," he said.
Trying to shrink the zone
The study, released last week, said Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi represent one-third of the land drained by the Mississippi River or its tributaries but contribute more than 75 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus going into the Gulf.
Indiana is the third-leading source of nitrogen, after Illinois and Iowa, and the sixth-leading source of phosphorus.
A task force of federal and state officials is expected to use the findings of the report in its recommendations for shrinking the dead zone.
The study will help the government "cut the size of the dead zone in faster and fairer ways," said Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for water.
Scientists advising the EPA have recommended the government set targets to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus by 45 percent to cut the size of the dead zone in half.
Turco said reducing the nutrients by that much could affect crop yield. But he also said farmers could take steps, such as better timing of fertilizer application, that would help.
A Purdue research group is studying the issue and contributing ideas to the state.
The Indiana Department of Agriculture has shifted some resources to focus on reducing runoff into the Wabash River, the main tributary of the Ohio River, which feeds into the Mississippi, said Tammy Lawson, an assistant director in charge of conservation. The effort includes giving farmers financial and technical assistance for better management practices.
"When you look at the options farmers have, there are multiple opportunities," Lawson said. "It’s still up in the air as to which ones work the best and which ones get the best bang for your buck."
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is studying the levels of nutrient concentrations that cause water quality problems in Indiana waters, according to spokeswoman Amy Hartsock.
"Once we develop where we think we need to be with nutrients, then we can look further to address any activities that might be contributing to problems," she said. "The Gulf issue is a primary driver for the development of nutrient criteria."
Indiana has banned phosphates in laundry detergent since 1973, and the state legislature is considering a ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent.
The study concluded that about 9 percent to 12 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous delivered to the Gulf comes from urban sources versus more than 70 percent from agricultural sources.
The study is based on a computer modeling of land use and water flows. Critics say the study is flawed because it relied on land-use data from a 1992 agricultural census.
Since then, many farms have taken measures to avoid polluting streams, including installing fences to keep cattle out of the water, said Don Parrish, who follows the Gulf issue for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
But the study shows that Congress needs to target land-conservation measures in states where the pollutants originate, said Michelle Perez, an agricultural policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. Versions of a farm bill passed by the House and Senate do not address the issue adequately, she said.