Nitrate pollution in the Mississippi River Basin is a growing problem, creating a Dead Zone downstream for marine wildlife. A new analysis from the Environmental Working Group shows that the problem is more solvable than it ever has looked before if the federal government begins to focus conservation needs in the trouble area.
The report, Dead in the Water, says targeted reforms of current federal farm programs could make a significant dent in the Dead Zone while improving the bottom line for family farms throughout the Mississippi River Basin.
Farms in counties that comprise just 15% of the total land area of the Mississippi River Basin are responsible for 80% of the critical spring surge of agricultural nitrate pollution to the Gulf, explains report author and EWG senior scientist Mary Booth.
Cook explains that no one is proposing to do without nitrogen fertilizer or taking large amounts of land out of production. "What we'd like to see is do the best we can to do tighten up nutrient management in those areas," Cook says. "Something along the average of $270 million a year worth of nitrogen goes down the Mississippi River each year. It's even higher now with upwards of $400 million with current prices. That is savings farmers can make."
Conservation programs already on the books can help address the problem. These include the Conservation Security Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Environmental Quality Incentive Program and Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program, explains Cook. Only a fraction of land is needed to go a long way in addressing the problem, whether it is with careful placement of filter strips, wetlands restoration or taking a fraction of land out of farming.
Booth adds that farmers want to do the right thing for their land, especially when it can boost their bottom line. "We just need to facilitate them to get these practices back on the ground."
Cook explains that EWG is in the processing of pinpointing funding figures of what is needed to fully address the problem to build support in the countryside and on Capitol Hill for a focus on conservation funds. "Several hundred million in the near term seems like a very prudent investment," he says. Conservation programs are consistent with WTO rules and save farmers money at the same time, Cook adds.
Booth says only 17% of Corn Belt farmers test soils for nitrogen. Testing can begin to address over application and boost farmers bottom line too, she states.