Between spring and fall each year, a huge area of water along the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico turns into a "dead zone" in which marine creatures cannot survive. Scientists say the zone forms when the Mississippi River deposits large amounts of plant nutrients, made up largely of nitrate fertilizers, into the shallow waters off the coast, causing the phytoplankton population to skyrocket and then decay.
A task force, led by the EPA but made up of a variety of national and state organizations, is studying the dead zone in order to revise the 2001 plan to control it. Because of the connection scientists have made between the dead zone and fertilizer runoff in the Midwest, some say the results of the current study may affect agriculture in the Mississippi watershed and beyond and the way the government and individuals approach water and nutrient conservation.
USDA National Resource Conservation Service Chief Arlen Lancaster says the NRCS is already addressing the issue by providing farmers with tools, information, and incentives to take the matter into their own hands.
"We support a voluntary, incentive-based approach," Lancaster says. For example, the NRCS awards grants for water quality and runoff management, sponsors informational nutrient management programs, and offers technical assistance through district conservationists and technical experts across the country.
Although the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone has grown since the 1980s - this year it was larger than Connecticut - Lancaster points out conservation changes in the Midwest won't affect the dead zone overnight. He maintains that soil conservation is moving in the right direction, with soil erosion rates down a reported 42% between 1983 and 2003.
Lancaster credits agricultural producers for doing their part. "From my vantage point, agricultural producers are acting responsibly." Farmers are "tremendous stewards," he adds.
So what changes can farmers expect to see as a result of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone task force? Lancaster won't say what actions Congress might take, and he is happy with the current direction of his organization's approach to nutrient conservation, but he does say he would like the NRCS to be better able to target specific practices.
Lancaster also suggests the emergence of a water quality trading program in the future. This program would create market-based incentives for farmers to keep up water quality on their land, following the model of carbon credit trading. The NRCS and EPA signed an agreement to promote water quality credit trading markets on Oct. 13, beginning with a pilot project in the Chesapeake Bay basin.
Wetlands help to filter out excess nutrients, so expect the Wetlands Reserve Program to add to its three quarters of a million acres under contract in the Mississippi basin. Grants to encourage responsible subsurface management will also help to encourage producers to be good stewards, Lancaster says.
For more information about conservation management and stewardship grants, see the NRCS website at www.nrcs.usda.gov.