Minnesota sets goals for fixing Gulf of Mexico dead zone

  • Article by: Josephine Marcotty , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2013 - 10:31 PM

Environmental groups say Minnesota’s actions are admirable but won’t be met without more enforcement.

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julio57Sep. 24, 1310:30 PM

I'm a farmer, and I manage my family's farm service business, which sells thousands of tons of Urea (nitrogen) and Phosphate and Potash fertilizers every year. Even I know and admit that the dead zone in the Gulf is a result of fertilizer run-off, due in large part to the huge number of acres of tiled farmland, but there is more to it than just farm runoff. The article, and the PCA's plan is incredibly narrow and ignores the other major factors. First, where is the other 60% of Phosphorus run-off coming from and why is that not being addressed? Second, what is being done about the tens of thousands tons of lawn fertilizer that is over applied across the state, that servers absolutely zero purpose except to make our yards and parks look nice? Third, nearly all scientists, of various backgrounds, agree that the biggest reason why the dead zone exists is because we have turned the Mississippi and it's major tributaries into direct run-off pipelines thanks to all of the flood control we have built. The river does not naturally rise and fall with the rapidity that we now see. Nature designed a flooded river to spread out, covering hundreds of thousands of acres every spring, slowing down the velocity of the water and allowing the nutrients and sediment to be deposited in the flood plains that buffer the river. That no longer happens because the river has been turned into a pipeline. We have too many conflicting goals to fix this entirely. We want cheap abundant food, but we don't want millions of people displaced because of flooding. We want to do right by the environment, but, again, we want cheep food. We don't want to buy foreign oil so we mandate ethanol, yet we want to tell farmers how to do their job, and then complain about ethanol. It goes on and on. The good news is that farmers are not stupid. For the last 20 years fertilizer use efficiency has increased drastically thanks to better application technologies the wide adoption of Best Management Practices as determined by the Universities. Farmers do not want to spend one penny more on fertilizer than they have to because it is a sunk cost if they do. The plant only uses a set amount of nitrogen. The hard part will be changing the habits of the general public and their expectations.

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merkinSep. 24, 1311:14 PM

Voluntary controls are nice and all, but they simply fail as too many people will opt to follow them and the rest will drag their feet getting the job done. If farmers really want to go the voluntary route they can do so today.

But let's not kid ourselves that the whole "let's study it more" routine is simply a delaying tactic. I've been hearing about how polluted the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers are since the 1970s and still we're facing the same old problems 40 years later. It's way past time to pony up to the table, stop the blame game, and get some real work done.

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livefreeordSep. 25, 13 5:47 AM

julio57 you're pointing fingers and trying to confuse things. Lawn fertilizer doesn't contain phosphorus anymore and the other 60% of phosphorus in the river is mostly from natural sources. Farming practices and especially tiling are by far the largest contributors to excess nutrients in our waters. We need to solve this problem. I'd start with pretty much banning tiling. The whole concept makes no sense. The water is not yours. You cannot just drain it willy nilly. Minimally, tile line drainage needs to be treated for nutrients and sediment and studies need to be required to ensure that tiling does not increase the rate of runoff worsening flooding. Of course, since that's the whole point of tiling, I don't see how it works.

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honeybooSep. 25, 13 6:41 AM

Let's solve global hunger while we're at it.

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clnorthSep. 25, 13 8:02 AM

livefreeord. Ever seen a bag of 10-10-10? Yes phosphorus is still readily available.

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willmarresSep. 25, 13 8:36 AM

How about spot checks of residential neighborhoods to see who is hitting streets and driveways with fertilizer. Word would travel fast if fines were assessed to my neighbors and me for being careless.

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shuckSep. 25, 13 8:37 AM

@clnorth - Phosphorus containing fertilizer may still be available (and allowed for use in new lawn establishment, golf courses, and agriculture), but it is already prohibited for general lawn use, and you're not going to find 10-10-10 by the multi-pallet load at Lowes/Home Depot like you will x-0-x.

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julio57Sep. 25, 13 9:19 AM

@livefreeord: You can come to store right now and buy bag of 13-13-13, 9-23-30, 19-19-19, and any number of 'organic' fertilizers that ALL contain Phosphorus (the middle number in the three I mentioned is the Phosphorus %). So please, do not tell us that it is not used by people on their lawns. Also, while tiling is a HUGE contributor, without tiling you would be looking at 10's of MILLIONS of fewer tillable acres in midwest. That would directly lead to higher food prices. Ethanol would be off the table because corn would be too high to validate ethanol production, meat would be twice as expensive as we see it now. Your soda pop and corn flakes would be double the cost. Rational people will not disagree with deleterious effects of tiling, however, rational people also acknowledge that the world is becoming more affluent and they want more, better food. You can't have both, so what do you want.

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DescartesSep. 25, 1310:36 AM

I'm a bit confused by julio57's response. Some of the biggest advocates of controlling the flow of rivers and preventing flooding are farmers! Farmers were the first, and loudest victims of seasonal river flooding. Instead of moving fields further away from areas that naturally flooded each year, they advocated controlling water flow to the unnatural state we are currently in. Areas where the river merges into the ocean are some of the most productive aquatically, and it's sad that we have turned this area into a dead zone.

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julio57Sep. 25, 1311:05 AM

@descartes: You are absolutely correct. The farmers that live along or near large rivers that are prone to flooding were and continue to be vocal advocates of flood control initiatives. However, they make up only a fraction of a percent of farmers as a whole. I don't really have a whole lot of sympathy for those farmers, because they pay for their land what it is worth. However, the majority of levees, dikes, and other flood control measures are not protecting farm lands, they are protecting the thousands of cities and towns located along our major rivers. Everything is interconnected. Tiling leads to more water reaching small streams faster. Water than hits the smaller rivers faster, where flood control and city runoff exacerbates the problem. Then all this high speed water hits the major rivers, where it is funneled directly to the Gulf of Mexico. Drive down highway 61 sometime. The entire west side of the Mississippi is leveed and diked to protect the towns along it. The west side is more open but not entirely. The acres that used to serve as buffers and sediment collectors are shrinking every day. This is what I was referring to when I said that there are too many conflicting goals to solve these problems with one simple program. Farmers, city dwellers, business owners, all want cheap food, less risk in their personal lives and businesses, and they don't want to see their land flooded out on an annual basis. Many of those same people are the advocates (as am I) for shrinking the dead zone, and the two do not jive easily.

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