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Dead zone linked to farm subsidies

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Orleans Times-Picayune, Matthew Brown

Published April 16, 2006

Louisiana's fishing industry faces an uncertain future after the pounding it took last hurricane season, but fishers know one thing is certain: Sometime this summer, a lifeless expanse of water about the size of Connecticut -- maybe a little bigger, maybe a little smaller -- will form off the state's coast.

And there's no point fishing it, because any nets dragged there are sure to come up empty.

Five years after a multistate compact was signed to rein in the sprawling "dead zone" of low-oxygen water that forms annually in the Gulf, the problem has only grown worse, according to federal and state officials and independent scientists. Voluntary incentives to cut down on the pollutants that cause it, particularly fertilizers carried by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from upstream farms, have failed to put a dent in the largest ecological threat to one of the world's most productive fisheries.

Meanwhile, a new study has traced almost 80 percent of the nitrogen-based fertilizers largely responsible for the low-oxygen zone to a relatively small number of agricultural counties in the Midwest that are heavily subsidized by the federal government to grow their crops.

The study from the Environmental Working Group in Washington says conservation programs intended to offset the runoff of fertilizers from farms have come up woefully short. In some of the counties highlighted by the study, the group said, for every $500 that goes into subsidy programs that could increase fertilizer use, a scant $1 is spent on conservation programs.

Call to shrink dead zone

As researchers gather in New Orleans next week to take stock of the problem, the 2001 action plan for shrinking the dead zone could face major revisions. Signed by nine states, the federal government and two American Indian tribes, the plan calls for a reduction by 2015 in the size of the low-oxygen, or hypoxic, zone to 1,930 square miles.

One-third of the way to that target date, the dead zone has averaged more than 6,000 square miles over the past five years, said Nancy Rabalais with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, known as LUMCON.

That's 20 percent greater than the 5,000-square-mile average since 1985.

"Certainly there's no evidence the problem is being mitigated. The hypoxic zone has not decreased over the last decade or five years," said Alan Lewitus, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer who manages the agency's hypoxia program. "There has to be a greater effort if we hope to meet that goal" of 1,930 square miles by 2015.

Costly problem

The dead zone overlaps an area known as the Fertile Fisheries Crescent -- the core of the Gulf's $800 million fishing industry and also prime habitat for red snapper, tuna and other commercially valuable fisheries. No dollar amount has been fixed to the toll the dead zone has taken on those fisheries, but scientists say its impact is undeniable.

Shrimp production declined 23 percent, or almost 20 million pounds annually, when the zone sharply expanded between 1985 to 1998, according to a study by National Marine Fisheries Service biologists. A study last year by Duke University said fish and shrimp outside the zone's boundaries also may suffer from the effects of low oxygen, which impedes reproduction and growth among certain fish.

The dead zone forms after fertilizers and other pollutants flowing out of the 31-state Mississippi River basin spark massive algal blooms, in the same way they accelerate the growth of cotton, corn and other crops. As the algae die, they suck almost all the oxygen from the water, forcing fish to relocate or perish.

Nitrogen, much of it from the fertilizer coming into the Gulf via the Atchafalaya and Mississippi, exceeded 2.2 billion pounds annually from 2001 to 2004, the latest year for which data was available, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Environmental Working Group report says the vast majority of that pollution comes from heavily agricultural counties that make up just 15 percent of the Mississippi basin. The report said $30 billion was spent on crop subsidies in those counties from 1997 to 2002. By comparison, $75 million was spent in the counties on conservation programs run by the federal Department of Agriculture, the report said.

The counties stretch from Illinois and Indiana into Missouri and Arkansas. Three northeast Louisiana parishes are on the list: East Carroll, Tensas and Madison.

"In the crudest sense, we're paying people to pollute," said Mary Booth, an ecologist with the environmental group.

Fertilizer defended

The National Fertilizer Institute disputes the report, saying it ignores other dead zone pollutants from sewage treatment plants, animal waste and automotive exhaust that settles out of the atmosphere.

Institute Vice President Kathy Mathers said it is in the farmers' interest to use the minimum amount of fertilizer necessary.

"Fertilizer prices are at an all-time high," Mathers said. "If you look at what farmers are paying, they're looking to apply what their plants need and to get maximum efficiency."

But Mathers also said farmers increasingly realize that whatever fertilizer runoff does occur could have effects far downstream. "We're working to make sure our house is very much in order," she said. "The awareness of farmers and the potential impact their practices might have on areas beyond their fields is certainly growing."

To capitalize on that growing awareness, more money must be spent on the USDA's conservation programs, said Doug Daigle, a hypoxia specialist on contract with Gov. Kathleen Blanco's Office of Coastal Activities and the coordinator of the Lower Mississippi River Sub-basin Committee.

David Salmonsen of the American Farm Bureau Federation said his group opposes attempts to increase conservation financing if they are at the expense of crop subsidies.

Yet with more nations having similar hypoxia problems as they adopt Western agricultural practices, Rabalais said, the urgency to address the issue will increase.

"A lot of the agricultural business is driven by the world economy, and there's all sorts of issues related to imports, exports and futures that drive what the modern agribusiness does," she said. "Somewhere there's got to be a balance, and it's beyond the political boundary of the Mississippi River watershed."