LSU, Ohio State team up in quest to save wetlands

By John Pope
Times-Picayune; January 6, 2008

The solution to restoring Louisiana’s coastline and revitalizing the Gulf of Mexico starts on farms in Ohio and other Midwestern states.
That’s the operating principle behind a 4 1/2-year-old partnership between Louisiana State and Ohio State universities — the rivals in Monday night’s battle for the college football crown — that is designed to staunch as much as possible the flow of damaging nitrogen compounds called nitrates before they get into rivers that flow into the Mississippi River and, eventually, to the Gulf, where they kill off oxygen and create a dead zone of about 975 square miles.
Year by year, the nitrates’ passage to the open sea has become steadily easier because Louisiana has lost so many of the coastal wetlands that could have removed the nitrogen from the water. One football field of this land is lost every 35 minutes, and 200 square miles of marshland have become open water because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to America’s Wetland Foundation, an advocacy organization formed to educate the public about the situation.
"You have this problem in the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re the cause of it," said William Mitsch, the professor of environment and natural resources who leads the Ohio State team.
"If we don’t do something about nitrates, it could really shut down our coastal-restoration program," said Robert Twilley, the professor of oceanography and coastal sciences who is Mitsch’s counterpart at LSU.
The nitrates — compounds of nitrogen and oxygen — come from fertilizer used on farms with drainage systems that wind up in one of three rivers — the Missouri, Ohio or Mississippi — and eventually get to the Gulf. They are also in animal and human waste.
"Nitrates come off the farms every spring," said Mitsch, whose wetlands-research laboratory has a view of the Olentangy River, which feeds into the Ohio River.
Mitsch and his colleagues have built model wetlands from scratch to show how farmers can create similar spreads on their own acreage.
"We thought, this is great, people will catch on," he said.
But gasoline prices started to rise, and people started getting interested in the potential of ethanol, which comes from corn.
"Everybody’s growing corn; everybody’s throwing fertilizer onto the land," Mitsch said. "I’m quite concerned about making any headway on the reduction (of nitrates) because you’re not going to have anybody who’s going to be willing to put an area into conservation. Land will be all corn up here. We’ve kind of gone backwards."
At the Mississippi’s mouth, Louisiana needs the river and the sediment it brings from its tributaries, which drain about 40 percent of the continental United States. But as the level of nitrates rises, the compounds can cause water-quality problems on the Outer Continental Shelf and in the shallow bays along the coast where people are trying to rebuild the wetlands, said Twilley, who also is LSU’s associate vice chancellor for research and economic development.
"If we don’t reduce nitrate pollution upstream, then we jeopardize the resource of the river," he said, "and we may be told we can’t put that water into our estuaries to rebuild our wetlands. Talk about a catch-22."
Although water-borne nitrates constitute the principal reason for the condition called hypoxia, refineries release a lot of nitrogen into the atmosphere, Twilley said.
LSU and Ohio State have been collaborators since 2003, and their work has been underwritten, project by project, by a series of grants from public and private sources, he said.
Their alliance was the result of networking, Twilley said, because the leaders from both schools had studied under Howard Odum, who is regarded as the godfather of wetlands conservation. As researchers in the same field, they became interested in each other’s work and saw the potential for a partnership.
Since 2003, LSU and Ohio State have developed master plans to start tackling the problem. Implementing them would be costly: The coastal-restoration program alone would cost about $14 billion over 30 years, he said.
Some projects were authorized last year in the Water Resources Development Act, but no money to underwrite them has been appropriated, Twilley said.
"We’re waiting to see them implemented," he said. "It’s so frustrating. We’re sitting here, and we’ve got these problems that we’ve got to solve, and we’ve got to get moving."
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John Pope can be reached at or at (504) 826-3317