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Time to help the 'dead zone'

Monday, September 21, 2009

Peoria Journal Star, Steve Tarter

Published June 25, 2006

It's an area the size of Connecticut that fails to harbor aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the major causes of the so-called "dead zone" is nitrogen runoff from fields in Illinois and other Midwestern states, said Bob Frazee, an educator with the University of Illinois Extension in East Peoria.

"Here in the Midwest we're very directly involved with the problems in the Gulf," he said.

"We've been targeted as one of the major sources of the oxygen depletion that's occurred. Nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides have been found down in the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out where it came from," said Frazee.

"If we get heavy rain up here, two weeks later it's in the Gulf," he said of runoff from fields carried by stream and rivers to the Mississippi River basin.

Frazee said it's a matter of farmers working together to solve the problem.

"Our farmers derive their income off the land. The farmers around the Gulf also farm the land but also the sea. They harvest lobster, shrimp and other shellfish. The dead zone has a dramatic impact on their income just like soybean rust would have on our farmers here," he said.

Conservation practices -- some "as old as the hills," said Frazee -- are well known. "The problem is that we don't have enough adoption (of these practices) by landowners and farmers," he said.

Work is underway to address the problem, said Dennis McKenna of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "We know that farms in Iowa and Illinois play a big role in the runoff problem so we're doing to see what farmers can do to reduce nitrogen losses," he said.

"We're still trying to work out the costs involved. It's a huge problem when you have 100 million acres of cropland in the Midwest," said McKenna.

A study released earlier this year by Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group found that 80 percent of the Gulf's nitrate fertilizer pollution flows from farms in just 15 percent of U.S. counties -- most located in the upper Midwest.

The EWG study said government subsidies are indirectly responsible for the fertilizer problem. "We know that farmers need help but we could be helping family farms solve the (runoff) problem by supporting more conservation measures," said Mary Booth, EWG senior scientist who wrote the report.

"The problem is that entities like the fertilizer industry and the American Farm Bureau don't want to see any curbs," she said.

But the head of the Bloomington-based Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association said nitrogen fertilizer sales are declining. "We're selling less fertilizer now in Illinois than we did in 1983," said Jean Payne, IFCA president. "We're all for controlling nutrient loss but a lot of it is uncontrollable and weather-based. Rainfall will drive hypoxia." Nancy Erickson of the Bloomington-based Illinois Farm Bureau said the bureau supports a further review of the causes of the dead zone problem while supporting "best management practices" for agricultural production, she said.

Those practices include a variety of conservation measures that provide benefits that go beyond helping ease problems in the Gulf, said Jody Tate, coordinator for the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices.

The council has been testing a nitrification fixer application in Bloomington and Decatur watersheds to stem the flow of nitrogen off farmers' fields. "The reason those watersheds were selected was that both are used as a source for drinking water and both communities had issues with nitrates in that water," she said.

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