Nitrogen is on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The nutrients headed there now will be the same ones responsible for a large dead zone this summer, an area that lacks oxygen, making it difficult for aquatic life to survive there.
Officials searching for a solution are focusing their efforts on the shores of the Wabash.
What is a dead zone?
We want to tell you about Ray McCormick’s farm. About his peach orchard, and when Senator Donnelly visited. That was in April. McCormick filled a tractor with dirt to promote soil health.
But in order to put some context to McCormick’s farm, we have to start somewhere far away, in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Every year in the summer, we develop what’s called a hypoxic zone, or more commonly called the dead zone. This is a location where marine organisms, fish, essentially can’t exist because there’s no oxygen left in the water column. Hence, a dead zone,” says Adam Ward, assistant professor in environmental science at Indiana University.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the hypoxic zone was about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined in 2015.
“The causes of this dead zone- why it’s forming, where the nutrients are coming from- there’s really no question: They’re coming from here in Indiana, from Illinois, from Iowa,” Ward says. “The corn belt is the number one source of these pollutants to the gulf.”
The nutrients are the ones used in farming: nitrogen and phosphorous. Rainfall carries them off the farmland into the Wabash River, then to the Ohio River and Mississippi River, eventually emptying out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The nutrients can lead to rapid algae growth. When the algae dies and decomposes, it takes oxygen from the water. With no oxygen, fish and other aquatic life cannot survive.
“The question is, how do you maintain your food supply and your energy supply without this environmental impact?” Ward asks. “How can we keep productivity up and not have such nutrient loads go into the gulf?”
Environmental Groups: Conserving Aquatic Species Has Unique Challenges
“[The] Indiana chapter of Nature Conservancy began looking and working within the Wabash decades ago because of that biodiversity,” says Brad Smith, Lower Wabash and Wetlands Program Director.
Smith says conservation practices have to be implemented on the shore.
“So if you have a rare plant for example, that rare plant exists in certain populations and places, you can go out and actually look to acquire that land to make sure the plant is going to be preserved,” Smith says. “With aquatic species, they live in the river systems. We can’t go out and acquire the water and the river itself in the same we would with land.”
That means working with farmers whose land is near the waterways. Smith describes the Nature Conservancy’s work as a group connecting farmers with the resources they need to improve soil health.
Smith says there are three things farmers can do to promote soil health:
1. Plant cover crops.
“The idea of cover crops is that we’re planting something else on the soil after harvest,” Ward says. “And those are using water and using nutrients rather than having them flushed out of the soil column.”
More than a million of Indiana’s 15 million acres of farmland uses cover crops.
2. Practice no-till farming, limiting how much the soil is disturbed.
3. Nutrient management: creating a plan for nutrient additions on crops.
“[B]y having good soil health, the farmer’s going to see a benefit in terms of their profitability, and the streams and rivers are going to see a benefit in terms of greater biodiversity and better water quality,” Smith says.
Case Study: A Farmer Practicing Nutrient Management
Ray McCormick is a farmer and conservationist. He is also on the board for the Nature Conservancy. Smith calls McCormick an example and an ambassador.
McCormick owns about 4,000 acres, including wetlands and a peach orchard, along with corn and soybean fields.
“Our soil is just like our body,” McCormick says. “Water’s good. Too much water is not good…. It’s all about, to be healthy, to have a healthy environment, is putting things back in balance, and you know how you do that, you mimic nature. The way nature did things before we got here is what we try to mimic in our farming operations.”
McCormick practices all of the soil health practices Smith recommends.
“We do a whole sweep of practices that help enhance the value of those nutrients on our farms,” he says. “And that lends to profitability. So the more profit we can make, the less money we can spend. It’s actually about growing bigger crops and bigger yields, using less nutrients.”
Bigger crops using fewer nutrients – but still it can be difficult to convince farmers to change their practices.
“Any added steps, be that added cost, be that added time, you gotta show that opportunity cost is really worth it,” Ward says.
During a tour of farmlands earlier this year, Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly visited McCormick’s farm.
He says he’s seen a trend of farmers talking about agriculture that’s mindful of the environment.
“Making sure that nutrients that are put down, stay in the ground, that they’re not washed into rivers,” Donnelly says. “Because that’s money going down the drain too, but at the same time, it’s also making our rivers cleaner.”
Donnelly is in a real position to work with farmers. He serves on the committee that writes the farm bill.
It provides funding for conservation that can be used for nutrient management.
The current bill expires next year, so Donnelly and other senators are preparing for the next farm bill.
Can Nutrient Management Stop The Dead Zone?
Ward says that if farmers stopped using fertilizer today, we would probably still have a dead zone because of the legacy of nutrients released in the waterways.
“The only way we are going to solve this problem is improving our management of nutrients here in the upper Midwest,” he says.
The Nature Conservancy in Indiana recently set a goal in their strategic plan of reducing the amount of nitrogen being exported to the Wabash by 15 percent by 2022.