The Environmental Protection Agency should be setting strict limits on fertilizer runoff and sewage overflows in far-flung streams across the nation, according to an EPA Inspector General report (pdf). In the absence of state action, it's the only way to prevent the massive dead zones in coastal waters -- most notably in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay -- that choke off oxygen and send marine life swimming madly for more hospitable waters.
The EPA isn't living up to the mandates of the Clean Water Act if it does otherwise, according to the report. For 11 years, it has relied on states to take action, with no great progress made on the problem.
The EPA set a precedent, of sorts, for this type of action earlier this year when, under the Bush Administration, it set limits on limits on farm runoff into the Florida Everglades, even though the state itself had not acted to protect one of the nation's most endangered natural treasures. (Read about the Everglades and all 10 endangered vacations.)
The prime culprit in the formation of these dead zones each summer is modern agriculture, which spread fossil fuel- and fossil-based fertilizers (nitrogen from natural gas, and phosphorus from mined phosphate) widely, only to have much of the nutrition run off into streams, which empty into rivers, which empty ultimately into coastal waters where the problems begin. The fertilizers do what they do: Fertilize. But in the oceans, this leads to massive blooms of algae, which, in decomposition, rob the water of oxygen, leaving ocean live starved -- and fishermen, fish markets and fish eaters without fish. (You can play a small role in the solution by cutting down on heavily processed foods and conventionally grown meats that rely on all that "cheap" corn.)
The acreage of corn planted, and the use of fertilizer, has skyrocketed in the recent years as Congress set quotas on the use of ethanol, an alternative fuel that in the United States is made primarily from corn. As requirements to use more ethanol increased, so did corn acreage and fertilizer used. Massive subsidies for corn and soybeans -- which end up in virtually every processed food on every shelf of the grocery store -- make commodity crops the most lucrative crop for many Midwestern farmers.
Organic growing methods feed the soil -- with compost and organic fertilizers -- rather than feeding the plants directly with doses of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium; in that way, organic farming is less likely to result in harmful runoff. Strategic planting of buffer zones around streams, crop rotation and no-till farming are among the methods conventional farmers can use to reduce runoff and erosion. But ultimately, the fate of our coastal waters may lie with Congress, and its decisions on farm policy, since the subsidization of commodity corn is behind a big part of the runoff.
Individuals can also play a positive role here -- particularly when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes many heavily developed areas in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Runoff from individual yards, driveways, rooftops and other paved areas contributes to the problem of nutrient overload (as well as other types of pollution). This non-point pollution has been far more difficult to rein in than the drainage pipe pollution that the Clean Water Act so dramatically worked to clean up starting in the 1970s. Non-point pollution now is a bigger threat to U.S. waters than any other source, and it's up to everyone to be a part of the solution. Some things you can do include avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn (or better, going organic); using a rain barrel, green roof or other technique to ensure that water that would otherwise runoff into storm drains is absorbed into the earth; and if you live near a stream, take care to plant trees and shrubs in the riparian zone.
Why is this so important? The world is getting familiar with the carbon cycle and how pumping carbon that's been buried for millions of years into the atmosphere causes some global problems, but the out-of-whack nitrogen cycle is just as problematic.
The World Resources Institute recently mapped the world's dead zones and found a whopping 415 eutrophic (nutrient-saturated) zones, including 169 that are known to be hypoxic (devoid of oxygen) and another 169 that probably are. The researchers believe the number is much higher, since only the United States and the European Union do an adequate job of counting and reporting problem coastal areas. China and other fast-growing Asian economies are likely polluting their coasts, but the problem hasn't been documented.
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