Pollution Solutions For Gulf ‘Dead Zone’ Disaster

Pollution Solutions For Gulf ‘Dead Zone’ Disaster

Friday, October 17, 2008

By Craig Cox

Agricultural run-off is causing environmental problems in Iowa waters and as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. Craig Cox, Midwest Vice President of Environmental Working Group, offers some solutions. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution flowing from the Mississippi River is devastating the northern Gulf of Mexico and impacting human health, killing fish and limiting recreation along the way. Each summer, this pollution causes a “Dead Zone” to form in the Gulf where too little oxygen is present to support sea life. Since 1985, when regular measurements were first taken of the dead zone, it has continued to grow. This year, it grew to 8,000 square miles, its second largest measurement to date.1 Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey reported in February 2008 that agricultural sources account for 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Dead Zone. They found that just nine states—including Iowa—contribute 75 percent of nitrogen and phosphorus. These nine states account for only about one-third of the Mississippi drainage area yet are the source of three-quarters of the nutrients, mostly from agriculture.2 The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico may seem far away from where we live in Iowa, but the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that cause the Dead Zone in the Gulf also cause serious problems in Iowa waters, including frequent algae blooms, low oxygen levels and threats to drinking water. Iowa rivers and lakes have some of the highest nitrogen and phosphorus pollution levels when compared to other regions of the country and the world. Our state list of impaired waters identifies nitrogen and phosphorus pollution as a cause of the impairment for 32 lakes and 33 river segments in the state.3 Seeking solutions to stem our agricultural pollution will help our neighbors downstream and improve water quality here at home. Scientists and conservationists in Iowa—and across the nation—who study the problem have recommended that a three-pronged approach be taken. First we need to keep the soil in place and build its capacity to hold onto nutrients and water. Second, farmers and ranchers need to better manage nitrogen and phosphorus applied to agricultural fields in fertilizers and manures. Management plans must ensure that most of that nitrogen and phosphorus stays in soil or gets taken up by crops, rather than running off or leaching into lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. Finally, we need to increase the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that is captured in wetlands, filter strips, riparian zones and in stream channels themselves. There are proven conservation practices and systems that address the recommendations outlined above,4 but not enough farmers employ them. To encourage their use, we rely almost exclusively on voluntary, federally- and state-funded conservation programs. Program improvements are needed. The most important improvements we can make to voluntary programs are:
  • Increase accountability by setting explicit goals and timelines and ensuring full transparency regarding where taxpayers money is going and for what practices and systems.
  • Focus most efforts in priority watersheds and work with groups of producers to take joint actions to solve pressing problems; even heroic efforts by award winning farmers will produce poor results if producers aren’t working together.
  • Target conservation within priority watersheds where it will do the most good to improve water quality; often only a small portion of the agricultural land in a watershed is responsible for much or most of the sediment and nutrient problems.
  • Collect and disseminate conservation information we need to direct our programs effectively; we don’t have the information we need to tell us what conservation practices are already in place on the landscape and how those practices are changing in response to market conditions and public policies such as biofuel subsidies and mandates.
  • Build the technical services and scientific support network needed to get the job done.
If we take concerted action to accomplish the five objectives outlined above, we will see more results, more quickly. But even the most focused and best managed voluntary programs will not be sufficient to solve the water quality problems associated with agricultural production in Iowa. In part this is because of money. Given the financial and budget problems we are facing as a state and nation it is folly to think that massive increases in funding for voluntary programs will come our way. Most significant, however, are the inherent weaknesses of voluntary programs to improve water quality:
  • Producers who volunteer are often not the ones causing the most damage.
  • Producers’ priorities dominate especially if they are picking up part of the tab; producer priorities may be different than conservation program priorities.
  • Designing programs that provide equal opportunity for all producers to participate becomes more important to legislators than designing programs that wisely direct scarce funding to producers actually causing water pollution problems.
The weaknesses in voluntary programs too often result in random acts of conservation rather than the highly focused acts of conservation needed to solve water quality problems. Innovative regulatory frameworks can and should be devised. The Conservation Compliance provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill are the best current examples of “regulatory” framework that has produced real results: historic reductions in soil erosion across the United States. However, it is important to note that lack of enforcement by states has stalled further progress. Regulatory frameworks should be devised primarily to drive producers, who are causing pollution, into voluntary programs. For example, a minimal setback of agricultural activities from waterbodies on hydrologically-sensitive land would create an incentive for polluting producers to enroll certain tracks of land in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program, where they can get paid to do what they otherwise would be required to do. Rather than requiring all producers to have nutrient management plans, why not begin to phase out, through regulation, particularly risky practices, such as fall application of nitrogen or spreading of manure on frozen ground? Finally, instead of command-and-control regulations applied to individual farmers, why couldn’t we enter into performance agreements with groups of producers in small, impaired watersheds? Producers, organized through a producer group, conservation district, or drainage district, would work together to achieve explicit and measurable reductions in water pollution by some specified date. The producers themselves would come up with the plan for getting the job done and be responsible for working together to get the practices in place. Financial help could be provided up front to get things going, but failure to meet the target reductions would result in more restrictive measures. It is time to get serious about developing regulatory programs that work—frameworks that make sense in agricultural settings and which producers can work with. These examples are a long way from fully fleshed-out proposals. But they do offer possibilities for strengthening and building on our current, voluntary programs.


1 Iowa Environmental Council. The Dead Zone: Upstream. http://www.iaenvironment.org/documents/deadzone_factsheet_08.pdf 2 Alexander, R.B, R.A. Smith, G.E. Schwarz, E.W. Boyer, J.V. Nolan and J.W. Brakehill. Differences in Phosphorus and Nitrogen Delivery to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River Basin. Environmental Science and Technology 2008: 42(822-830). 3 http://www.iowadnr.com/water/watershed/files/06factsheet.pdf 4Schnepf, M. and C. Cox (eds). Environmental Benefits of Conservation on Cropland: The Status of Our Knowledge. Soil and Water Conservation Society, Ankeny, Iowa 2006. 326p.