Ground to Gumbo
is Illinois killing the Gulf?
I kept busy for years chronicling the devastating effects on Illinois’s landscape of industrialized agriculture, but as this piece makes clear, Illinois's polluting farm fields, in a way, reach all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
To most Illinoisans, the phrase "dead zone" suggests the Illinois Statehouse on a weekend, or Main Street after the Wal-Mart opens. But the dead zone that may end up mattering the most to Illinoisans is some 900 miles away, in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas and Louisiana. That part of the Gulf supports commercial and recreational fisheries that add some $3 billion a year to the economy. And Illinois, some say, is killing them.
How? These fisheries depend on uncounted trillions of phytoplankton, the simple microscopic plants that are the foundation of a food pyramid that leads, through brown shrimp and Texas fishermen, to gumbo in the pot. These diatoms, cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates, along with many other half-recollected denizens of high school biology class, are fed substantially by nutrients washed into Gulf waters through rivers and streams—principally the Mississippi and its tributaries.
So far, so natural. But the difference between feeding and polluting a body of water is the same as the difference between feeding and polluting a human body at the dinner table. Which results depends on whether one feeds more nutrients into the system than the system needs. Excess nutrients, in the case of the Gulf's shallow waters, don't mean excess pounds, they mean excess populations of phyoplankton at certain times of the year. When they and the other myriad sea creatures that feed on them die, their remains sink and provide a buffet for bottom-dwelling bacteria, which, unlike phytoplankton, consume oxygen. Beginning in late spring, the bacteria multiply so prodigiously that they suck the oxygen out of the bottom waters. The condition has a name—hypoxia—which is defined as the presence in water of less than 2 parts per million of oxygen, as compared to normal levels of 4 to 6 parts per million.
Fish, shellfish and other sea creatures can't survive in hypoxic waters. Organisms that can move, do, in search of water with higher oxygen levels; those that can't move, die —hence the headline-friendly term dead zone. Like most headline phrases, this one is more dramatic than accurate. The zone only lasts a few weeks each summer—bottom waters are mixed with oxygen-rich surface waters when the latter cool and sink come autumn—and, for the moment, the bigger threat to Gulf fisheries is rising fuel prices. Nonetheless, a spreading hypoxic zone is generally considered a threat to the sustainability of local fisheries. Brown shrimp, a chief prize, are forced to move into less clement water, where their growth rates slow by 5 percent to 20 percent.
The hypoxic zone is not new to the Gulf. It was first noted in 1978, but scientists have since determined that large areas of hypoxic bottom water are a recurrent feature in the summers. Neither are hypoxic zones unique to the Gulf. The phenomenon exists in several parts of the world; in North America, for instance, dead water can be found in the Chesapeake Bay and the Sea of Cortez.
What is new about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is that it is growing. After the 1993 Mississippi River flood, the dead zone suddenly doubled in area. That wasn't surprising; the flood flushed a lot of stored nutrients off the land and into the Gulf. The shocker came afterward. The zone didn't shrink to pre-flood levels for the following three years; indeed, the hypoxic zone reached its largest extent in the summer of 2002, when it sprawled across roughly 8,000 square miles—basically, the size of the northeastern quadrant of the state.
In 1997, the latter days of President Bill Clinton's administration, when green was still a color on the political spectrum along with red and blue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set up a Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. The new body, made up of eight federal agencies and 10 state agencies, was not charged with solving the problem, but with solving the problem of how to solve the problem. The task force, therefore, began an ongoing scientific assessment of the causes and consequences of Gulf hypoxia with an eye toward eventual management programs to reduce the damage.
And why was Illinois included on a task force to save the Gulf of Mexico? As with any murder case, the investigators started with the obvious suspects. In 1999, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science tentatively fingered the bad guy: Colonel Nitrogen done it, in the basement. A substantial source of excess nutrients, all seemed to agree, was fertilizers washed off farm fields in the Midwest, in particular nitrates that originate in the anhydrous ammonia that farmers add to cornfields like kids add sugar to cornflakes. Based on that finding, the Task Force on Gulf Hypoxia in 2001 developed a national "action plan" with a goal to reduce nitrogen coming down the Mississippi River by 30 percent by 2015.
From the view of a lot of Illinoisans, however, much of the science that backed up this nitrogen-reducing action plan stank more than a Louisiana bayou in August. While common sense suggests that farm fertilizers are a significant source of nutrients, it was not yet proven that they were the decisive ones, or that the recent changes in the size of the dead zone can be attributed solely to human intervention in the Gulf ecosystem, much less to any one human source.
"What exactly is the cause?" asks Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. "There are two camps. The initial camp says, 'It's all nitrogen, all nitrogen, all nitrogen.' Well, prairie soils have a natural abundance of nitrogen. Yes, there's supplemental nitrogen added for growing crops, but from a per bushel standpoint, that's been going down for 10 [to] 20 years." Weinzierl points out that phosphorous is another potent plant nutrient, and surface waters have a lot of phosphorous put into them from sewage treatments, loadings that are increasing with population. "The nitrogen camp is so fixated on nitrogen that they are not looking at phosphorous loading, which over the past 20 [to] 30 years has been a bigger issue."
Such views matched those of many of Illinois' public scientists. In a biting comment on a 2004 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that continued to point the finger at nitrogen as the sole perpetrator in the Gulf, the Illinois State Water Survey complained, in effect, that the federal environmental cops had been chasing the wrong guy. The survey's chief, Derek Winstanley, insisted to the NOAA agency coordinating the research that the initial assessments of the problem on which the 30 percent nitrogen reduction target was based were flawed by what he called "a preconceived bias to identifying excess nitrogen as the problem" and nitrogen control—especially from agricultural fertilizer application in the Midwest—as the solution. He called for a new, independent assessment.
It isn't accurate to say that the case against nitrogen has been reopened—it was never really closed—but it is fair to say that investigators are looking at a wider range of suspects. Exhibit A for the defense, from the view of Illinois ag interests, is this: Nitrogen use on Illinois farms has dropped by two-fifths during the period when the size of the zone has nearly doubled. "The longer the research goes on, and the more data is collected," says Winstanley now, "the more apparent that inconsistency [between presumed cause and effect] becomes."
By 2002, the federal agency, in its summing up of the state of the inquiry, declared that while the general agreement that nitrogen availability determines the overall productivity of the Gulf system still held, the effect of nutrient availability on hypoxia "may be much more complex than previously realized."
This reassessment, it should be pointed out, is how science gets done. From the start, ameliorative actions were to be adjusted according to the findings of ongoing research. On some days, there may be more scientists on the Gulf than there are fishermen. State and federal environmental agencies, other federal agencies and more than 70 universities and institutes are listed as partners in the research, along with Native American tribes, Canadian provinces and 15 nonprofit labs.
Like the characters in today's faddish detective show subgenre, many of these scientists are busy applying advanced forensics to settle how the victim died, and what killed him. The phytoplankton in Gulf waters comprise many species whose growth is limited by different nutrients and whose populations bloom and fade at different times of the year and in different parts of the Gulf. Tracing cause of death in such a dynamic and complex system is hard to do, which is why there is no DNA test to conclusively determine whose hand—anthropogenic nitrogen or phosphorous or, more likely, some mind-numbingly complicated combination of many factors—is shaping the size of the dead zone.
"Definitely, it's gotten more complicated," explains Dennis McKenna, the deputy administrator of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Division of Natural Resources. He notes that conversations have begun at recent task force conferences about a dual strategy of controlling both nitrogen and phosphorous. Whatever happens, reviving the Gulf is likely to disappoint those who prefer their environmental controversies to resemble criminal trials. This one is more likely to resemble a legislative session, in which policymakers feel obliged to come up with compromise solutions in the face of conflicting facts and competing interests.
Much of the dead zone debate is not really about shrimp. It's about agriculture, specifically the intensive production of grains, and its wisdom, its costs and its environmental effects. The Illinois corn farm is as automated and high-tech and capital-intensive an operation as any factory in the state; unlike a conventional factory, its operations affect a great deal of land—a record high 12.1 million acres in 2005, which is almost 19,000 square miles.
Environmentalists have long tried to tie down ag to keep it, variously, from polluting drinking water wells or clogging reservoirs with eroded farm soils. Farmers, though, have proven to be nimble business people indeed. Of all the state's great industries, production ag is the least strictly regulated in its environmental effects.
Thus the eagerness with which some environmental activists have taken to dumping shrinking shrimp at the farmhouse door and crying, "Shame!" In April of this year, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based green group, issued a luridly titled study, Dead in the Water, that used computer modeling to track the sources of the fatal nutrient loads. It found that heavily farmed counties that cover 15 percent of the Mississippi River basin account for 80 percent of the spring surge of fertilizer that washes into the river and thus, eventually, the Gulf. Inevitably, counties that produce the most corn, and apply the most fertilizer, were fingered as the biggest contributors to the nitrogen loads heading south. Among those cited in the study as the worst offenders were such Illinois counties as Iroquois, LaSalle and McLean.
Bad enough, one would think, but the Environmental Working Group went on to point out that, far from feeding the cities, corn farmers are being fed by the cities through subsidies in the form of price supports. According to the group's figures, farmers flush more than one-third of a billion dollars of nitrogen fertilizer down the Mississippi River each spring. Such profligacy is survivable because tax money, in the form of price support payments, provides an incentive for Illinois farmers to produce a lot of nitrogen-hungry corn. The group's study charted the presumed major sources of nitrogen and noted where the subsidy checks are mailed; the locations overlap.
Put crudely, losing a third of a billion to qualify for $60 billion in subsidies is good for business, if bad for the Gulf. The Environmental Working Group argues that getting the taxpayers to pay to fix the problem of nitrogen loading in Gulf coastal waters would be unnecessary if taxpayers stopped paying farmers to cause it. The headline on the press release announcing the report reads, Farm Subsidy Reform Key to Restoring Gulf of Mexico 'Dead Zone': Programs Waste Taxpayers' Money While Subsidizing Pollution Threatening Top U.S. Fishery.
Ag advocates complain, with some justice, of a double standard. The homeowner lavishing fertilizer on her own little back 40 in the form of the suburban-style lawn also contributes to nitrogen loading in the Gulf, and if lawns are collectively a less significant contributor, it is only because less Illinois land is (at least for the moment) planted in turf grass than is planted in corn. Indeed, only the size and cost of their tractors separate the corn farmer tilling a field and the yard-proud suburbanite mowing land that is bigger than she might otherwise afford because of the federal tax subsidy in the form of the home mortgage interest deduction.
Certainly, federal crop programs should not have pernicious environmental effects. But neither should a mandated reduction in nitrogen use be imposed in the absence of sound evidence of its necessity. The Corn Growers' Weinzierl notes that Illinois corn farmers are becoming more nitrogen-efficient, thanks in part to its high price, and the problem already is being solved. "Our fear is that, if the science community believes that ag is the sole problem, and they're wrong," he says, "then, one, regulation will be directed toward the wrong sector and, two, [we] will be trying to solve the wrong problem."
Yes, it is standard procedure to plead, "Where's the science?" The position taken by the ag industry sounds a lot like that taken by Big Tobacco in the face of evidence about lung cancer, and by the electric utilities about global warming. But delay is not corrupt only because it benefits an industry, any more than a regulation is evil just because it harms one. The fact is the science is not persuasive enough to support a strict (and expensive) regulatory regime. This is not an argument for doing nothing but for doing nothing precipitously. Curing a problem before it becomes a bigger problem is prudent; it also can be expensive.
The new questions, and the new findings that presumably will come as people try to answer them, are more likely to refine the case against nitrogen than disprove it, and nitrogen use will remain the target of whatever reduction policy is eventually adopted. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel is expected to convene this fall, and by next summer issue its best answer about what is causing the dead zone. Potentially, the implications for Illinois are huge. "Some people are now talking about the necessity of a 40 [to] 45 percent reduction," says the Illinois agriculture department's McKenna. "I don't think we can achieve that without large changes in the cropping system."
Illinois farmers are concerned about the impending verdict—farmers always have something to be concerned about—but they seem more worried there's too little summer rain than too much regulation. Precipitate regulation is not something that recent Congresses have been famous for. Indeed, the President George W. Bush-era Congress seems not inclined to do much of anything about hypoxia in the Gulf. (There has not been a significant infusion of federal research money, for example, for the past six years; what work has been done in Illinois was paid for by using scarce state funds.) The election of a Democratic president and/or Congress more receptive to environmentalism may change that. But, when asked what they think about the killing in the Gulf, it's not the shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico that Americans have on their minds.
When it comes to how nitrogen use might be reduced, there is a firmer consensus on what won't happen than on what ought to happen. "I don't think that anyone wants a regulatory approach," adds McKenna. The task force's goal of a 25 percent reduction does not have statutory power. It's a "good idea" kind of objective, to be achieved through the usual voluntary, cooperative and collaborative compliance of the sort that polluters who want to head off compulsory regulations and protectors who fear they can't get compulsory regulations agree to.
Such approaches certainly aren't politic. When the subject comes up, farm groups intone ancient chants to ward off "heavy-handed and cumbersome regulations"—meaning the Environmental Protection Agency—and "excessive taxes or outside entities trying to micromanage farmers [sic] business operations"—meaning environmental groups. Any reduction targets or regulations or management strategies that result from the research now under way must be "workable" (not cost any of their members a lot of money), the whole problem needs more research (they should keep looking until they get an answer we like) and hypoxic zones are found in most of the oceans of the world (if others can get away with it, why can't we?).
Various remedies have been proposed. The greenish Worldwatch Institute preserves its credentials as both green and free-market by urging trading in nutrient allowances through a new market of the sort that now operates to reduce sulfur emissions. More observers pretty much agree, however, that the most cost-effective and certain solution is improved agricultural practices coupled with restoration of wetlands in the river basin.
The first—improved agricultural practices—already is happening in Illinois for reasons that have nothing to do with shrinking shrimp. Illinois corn farmers have seen average yields go up 20 percent to 22 percent in the past 15 years, but nitrogen applications per bushel have been going down, thanks to superior hybrids and satellite-linked tractor guidance systems that allow more precise fertilizer application. Adoption of such innovations has been spurred in part by the cost of nitrogen, which has gone up 300 percent in the past few years as the cost of natural gas (from which the common forms are synthesized) has gone up.
Making such efficiencies general is the ultimate aim of hypoxia-related research here in Illinois. In the Sangamon River watershed upstream from Lake Decatur, for example, three interrelated projects are under way to learn how farmers can be even more efficient in the use of fertilizers—on-farm trials of GIS-based software and precision agriculture, the use of subsurface bioreactors to reduce movement of nitrates through drainage tiles to surface waters, and an assessment of the economic and environmental benefits from improved phosphorus management.
Just as effective as putting less nitrogen on the field is keeping more of it from leaving the field, or at least keeping it from entering surface waters that ultimately carry it to the Gulf. Remedies include planting buffer strips of grass that interrupt the movement of dissolved nitrogen off fields and allow it to break down naturally in soils before it gets to streams. A test of the cost-effectiveness of building and/or restoring wetlands in riparian ecosystems to act as natural barriers between farms and the streams that ultimately feed the Gulf was done not long ago at Hennepin and Hopper lakes in Marshall County along the middle Illinois River. The project converted more than 2,600 acres of cropland to bottomland forest, backwater lakes and floodplain wetlands. The analysis showed that, consistent with the assumptions of the analysts at least, such projects are feasible ecologically and economically. Some farm experts worry, however, that if a hypoxia reduction scheme called for creation of wetlands proportional to the state's input to the problem, some 5 million acres of wetland would be needed in Illinois.
There is, of course, the vexing issue of who is to pay for building these wetlands and other buffers, and for the lost income that conversion will inevitably cause. On one side are those who believe that hypoxia in the Gulf is a problem that spans state borders and affects the national economy, so it's only fitting that the nation pay to fix it. On the other side are those who complain that nitrogen-reduction incentives to farmers would be bribes to get farmers to do what they ought to do anyway; no one pays city dwellers not to dump their trash in public streets, so why should farmers get paid not to dump their garbage in public waterways?
The Environmental Working Group urges what it calls "well-funded opportunities for easements and riparian and wetland reserves," which makes plain the group is not opposed to federal outlays if they buy behavior it endorses. One doesn't have to be green to think this a good thing; for decades, the feds paid farmers not to grow certain crops in an attempt to reduce price-busting surpluses, which returned few benefits to the public that was paying for them; paying them now not to grow pollution would seem a better bargain. ■