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Restoring the Gulf the Right Way

To do a riff on Mark Twain: recent reports of the Gulf of Mexico’s recovery have been greatly exaggerated.

Yes, as the media relentlessly tell us, the Gulf, at least on the surface, looks pretty normal, surprisingly so in the wake of this year’s BP deepwater drilling disaster and lesser insults like the September 2 Mariner Energy oil platform fire.

Shrimping and oystering have resumed somewhat (though many still need to pursue claims for business perhaps lost forever). And seabirds and human sun-worshippers, neither group with any visible oil coverage, still congregate on gorgeous sandy beaches. A loose journalistic consensus, fueled as usual by corporate influence, has gelled: all is well – or will soon be, thanks to Mother Nature’s inscrutable bacterial clean-up efforts. After all, petroleum is a naturally-occurring substance, right (not to mention oil-consuming microbes)? And underwater oil seeps have been observed in the Gulf since time immemorial.

But several stakes – in the hands of various powerful “stakeholders” – still pierce the heart of this unparalleled subtropical marine ecosystem. And perhaps the most serious one has been hiding in plain sight for decades.

Specifically, the Gulf is an oceanic hostage to a terrestrial threat that dominates the “heartland” of the Lower Forty-eight: modern industrialized agriculture. And if ever there was an ecological wolf in sheep’s clothing, this is it: “conventional” farms throughout the vast Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio basin produce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff on a massive scale that creates a Gulf “dead zone” depleted of oxygen and inimical to aquatic life.

All things considered, this runoff may do more harm to the Gulf’s marine and riparian ecosystems than almost anything BP might dream up. But we need to be more specific. It’s not farming per se that’s the problem. It’s synthetic fertilizer and other chemical runoff that, having been applied in excess to cornfields and other cultivated areas, is annually washed off “conventionally” cultivated soils upstream – with the rich, or formerly rich soils themselves disappearing into the toxic soup. The mechanism of destruction is simple: The chemical runoff fuels the growth of excessive algae which then dies and decomposes, robbing the seawater of oxygen and creating so-called “hypoxic” zones commonly described as “the size of New Jersey” or Delaware or… perhaps larger states as time goes on.

This perverse process, which tends to be concentrated with the start of the growing season, is also expensive. A 2006 study by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group determined that runoff from the greater Mississippi Basin, at a rate of 7.8 million pounds per day in the springtime, accounted for 70 percent of the nitrate pollution in the Gulf (by contrast, municipal runoff accounted for just 11 percent.) and ran up a bill of $400 million a year.

Following the money further yields some interesting facts. These nitrates and phosphates hail from agricultural states that themselves are saturated with vast public agricultural “commodity” payments – in particular, the tens of billions in payouts that form the bulk of what’s summarized as the federal Farm Bill and underwrites large corn, soybean and similar operations concentrated in the “I States” (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana). There’s also an odd inverse relationship between these payments, which of course promote the erosion that accompanies the intense cultivation of these croplands, and the public conservation subsidies – specifically, wetland-preservation and water-quality payments – designed to keep soil from washing away. According to the EWG study, in the most highly offending geographical areas, the ratio of subsidies that actually promote soil loss to those that promote soil conservation and clean water can be 1000 to one, or even worse.

The EWG notes some obvious solutions. For example, since the upstream agricultural areas whose runoff is growing the Gulf’s Dead Zone are relatively concentrated geographically, remediation efforts can be concentrated, as well, and thus more effective. But the fine print gives good cause for skepticism on this point. Says the EWG: “Focusing resources on reducing fertilizer runoff in these hotspots through wetland restoration, streamside easements and better nutrient management on working farm lands will improve local water quality, restore stream and river banks, help control floodwaters, and ultimately reduce the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, however, trends are in the opposite direction. In the nitrate pollution hotspots…less than 3 percent of the acreage is enrolled in any kind of conservation program. Overall, acres set aside for conservation in the MRB have declined over 30 percent since their peak in 1993” (emphasis added).

Obviously, efforts to stem the flow of phosphorus and nitrogen “nutrients” downriver and into the Gulf of Mexico will need to go way beyond what’s possible with even the best conventional conservation practices. Certainly the dominance of King Corn, Cotton, and other commodities, plus the attendant (and unfortunately legalized) corruption of federal supports, must be addressed.

Nothing short of a wholesale shift to organic agriculture, coupled with the adoption of smart hydrological practices, will be up to the task.

Just by themselves, policies that treat rivers and wetlands like natural systems will go a long way. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) claimed in a 1999 study that more than 50 percent of nitrogen runoff from the Mississippi Basin could be eliminated by such measures as “the creation and restoration of wetlands and riparian [i.e. streambank and shoreline] ecosystems between farmland and streams and rivers,” the “reflooding” of former wetlands throughout the region, plus the retention and/or diversion of floodwaters to the “backwaters” and coastal wetlands that were historically – and properly – their destinations.

But there’s no reason to stop at 50 percent. A huge additional reduction in problematic runoff could be achieved by going organic.

The Rodale Institute points out that “converting acres of cropland to organically-grown agriculture… greatly increases soil organic matter and includes nutrient-retaining ‘trap’ crops. Soil scientists refer to these “traps” as among the “reservoirs” that keep nitrogen where it belongs and in the lower concentrations that keep it from turning into water pollution. Other organic farming practices, says the Institute, would help, too – simple things like “returning crop land to pasture and growing more multi-year forage crops.” Healthy soil, nurtured by organic practices that increase humus content and thus water-retention capacity, grows healthy plants that don’t cast off excessive nitrogen and other “wastes.” And in tandem, healthy soil and crops act as the ultimate control devices for cleansing the water that eventually winds up in the Gulf.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a target – a 45 percent reduction in nitrate runoff by the year 2015 – to kill off the Gulf’s dead zone. That’s in line with what the NOAA says is possible by conventional means. But organic farmers and enthusiasts know that much more of a reduction is possible through a revolution in farming. It’s not possible to get to 100 percent (nitrates, etc., wind up in the water via atmospheric deposition, municipal runoff, and other vectors that cry out for their own solutions), but why not set a target of, say, a 75-80 percent reduction over the coming years? Something in that range should be attainable if organic becomes the conventional form – the “new normal,” you might say – of US agriculture.

JACK BRADIGAN SPULA is a Rochester (NY)-based freelance writer and activist who works with the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Interstate Council.

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