By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Though not as large as predicted, the Gulf of Mexico “dead” or oxygen-free hypoxic zone is currently about the size of Connecticut and continues to affect the nation’s commercial and recreational marine resources in the Gulf.
This is according to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), which led a July 21-28 survey cruise and determined the hypoxic zone to encompass 5,840 square miles.
“A near-record area was expected because of wet spring conditions in the Mississippi watershed and the resultant high river flows, which deliver large amounts of nutrients,” said Nancy Rabalais, Ph.D., LUMCON executive director. “But nature’s wind-mixing events and winds forcing the mass of low oxygen water towards the east resulted in a slightly above-average bottom footprint.”
On June 18, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-sponsored (NOAA) forecast models predicted the Gulf hypoxic zone would measure as large as 7,300-8,600 square miles, among the largest on record. Though the final measurement was significantly smaller, the dead zone area eclipsed the long-term average and was above the average size for the previous five years.
While those numbers were far from ideal, Illinois’ agriculture director and groups such as the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) and Council on Best Management Practices (C-BMP) called attention to the fact that current voluntary nutrient management practices being embraced by farmers could be credited with limiting the amount of nutrient losses from Midwest crop fields this spring.
“We were all surprised to hear that the zone is not nearly that large. In fact, the zone is very nearly the average size,” stated Lindsay Mitchell, special projects manager for Illinois Corn, in a Daily Update message to members. “This means that although some would like to believe that they have nutrient runoff and the causes of hypoxia zones down to an exact science, the fact that we can’t accurately predict a significant increase or decrease means there’s a lot we still don’t know.”
Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Bob Flider weighed in, telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Illinois farmers are doing a good job in figuring out the source of nutrient runoff problems and lessening agriculture’s unintended contribution.
Flider cited programs at the University of Illinois, C-BMP’s Keep it for the Crop 2025 initiative and other, extensive resources available to the state’s farmers regarding nutrient best management practices.
Still, some 12.7 million pounds of chemicals such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are released into the Mississippi River annually, according to Environment Missouri, with the total annual load of excess nitrogen into the Gulf now exceeding 1.5 million metric tons.
This information has some environmental groups, including the Mississippi River Network (MRN), calling on Congress to pass a 2013 farm bill containing the Senate’s provisions for support of voluntary conservation practices – such as the use of cover crops and no-till farming – to lessen nutrient runoff from farm fields.
“Americans need a farm bill this year to keep the important programs that not only protect, preserve and restore our waterways, but also provide economic certainty for our nation’s farmers,” said Claudia Emken, policy manager for the MRN.
Environmentalists stand behind the Senate version of the farm bill (Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012) due in part to its provisions for funding of conservation programs that help farmers improve soil and water health.
Specifically, the Senate farm bill includes a national “Sodsaver” program to protect critical grassland sources, as well as a requirement ensuring that taxpayer-funded benefits are extended only to farmers in compliance with conservation measures, according to the MRN.
The House version removes the conservation compliance requirement and limits the scope of the Sodsaver program.
With the current farm bill set to expire in September, environmental groups including the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Izaak Walton League are encouraging Congress to get to work.
“More than 115 million acres are in some type of private agriculture production in the Mississippi River region,” said Olivia Dorothy of the Izaak Walton League. “So, it is vitally important to include sound conservation programs in the farm bill for the health of the river and our communities.”
Common among the environmental groups urging Congress to act on a farm bill this year is their belief that conservation compliance helps reduce pollution causing the Gulf hypoxic zone, while helping prevent soil erosion, cutting federal expenditures and enhancing wetland and grassland ecosystem health.
“It would be irresponsible for Congress to let this bill expire without finishing what they have started,” said Ryan Stockwell, ag program manager for the NWF. “We urge them to work harder to protect wildlife, water quality and taxpayers as they finalize this bill.”
Emken said agriculture is not the lone culprit of nutrient drainage runoff problems along the Mississippi River Valley; the encroachment of neighborhoods on former agricultural lands, businesses and even consumers are also to blame.
“We must do something to reduce this urban development and agricultural runoff,” she stated, in a letter appearing to newspapers in August. “What we do both up and down the Mississippi has major impacts on the Gulf.”