Some coastal woes begin far inland
Farm runoff creates ‘dead zones’ offshore, but no national authority is tasked to address them.
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The problem, which embraces the 1.2 million-square-mile Mississippi watershed, spread across 31 states, is daunting. But a recent US Geological Survey report indicated that the fertilizer sources are relatively concentrated. Nine states contribute 75 percent of the nutrient runoff that ends up in the Gulf. Each year, $391 million worth of fertilizer washes down the Mississippi, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington.Skip to next paragraph
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Mitigation measures are relatively low-tech. Planting a buffer of certain crops – switch grass, for example – around farmland can cut nutrient-rich runoff. Wetland systems absorb nutrients in the water, which places a premium on wetland restoration. Changing when and how farmers fertilize also lessens runoff.
When polled, farmers say they would prefer the more diverse landscape implied by buffers and restored wetlands. Indeed, various programs exist at both state and federal levels to pay farmers to let land go fallow, or even restore it. But currently the incentives to plant crops – including direct subsidies and high food prices – are much greater than those for conservation. In the top polluting counties, EWG puts the ratio at 500 to 1.
“They’re being paid to grow more and more corn rather than to implement these conservation measures,” says Donald Scavia, professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “You’re concerned about fish in the ocean, and it’s being driven by US farm and energy policy.”
The only way to address the problem, say experts, is through a coordinated effort led by a central authority.
In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency convened a task force to address the problem. Four years later, the group produced a comprehensive action plan aimed at halving the size of the hypoxic area by 2015. To do so, nutrients would have to be cut by almost one-third. (A later study found that a 55 percent cut would be required.)
Eight years later, some are calling it the “no-action plan.” Individual states have moved to address their water quality issues locally, but the coordinated effort called for in the action plan has yet to emerge. Lack of money is the biggest obstacle, a fact noted in the in the 2008 Action Plan signed earlier this month.
“The goal was to achieve something like $2 billion per year to fight hypoxia,” says Len Bahr, director of applied science in the Louisiana governor’s Office of Coastal Activities in Baton Rouge, and a signatory on the 2008 plan. “None of that money has ever materialized.”