Ten Threats: Dead Zones in the Lakes

  • These fishermen at Port Clinton, Ohio, are a few miles away from the dead zone that develops in Lake Erie every summer... so far, most fish can swim away from the dead zone. But the dead zone is affecting the things that live at the bottom of the lake. (Photo by Lester Graham)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is nonpoint source pollution. That’s pollution that
doesn’t come from the end of a pipe. It’s oil washed off parking lots by storms, or pesticides and
fertilizers washed from farm fields. Nonpoint source pollution might be part of the reason why
some shallow areas in the Great Lakes are afflicted by so-called dead zones every summer.

Transcript

In another report on the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes series, reporter Lester Graham looks at a
growing problem that has scientists baffled:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is nonpoint source pollution. That’s pollution that
doesn’t come from the end of a pipe. It’s oil washed off parking lots by storms, or pesticides and
fertilizers washed from farm fields. Nonpoint source pollution might be part of the reason why
some shallow areas in the Great Lakes are afflicted by so-called dead zones every summer.


Dead zones are places where there’s little or no oxygen. A dead zone develops in Lake Erie
almost every summer. It was once thought that the problem was mostly solved. But, it’s become
worse in recent years.


(sound of moorings creaking)


The Environmental Protection Agency’s research ship, the Lake Guardian, is tied up at a dock at
the Port of Cleveland. Nathan Hawley and his crew are loading gear, getting ready for a five day
cruise to check some equipment that measures a dead zone along the central basin of Lake Erie.


“What I have out here is a series of bottom-resting moorings that are collecting time series data of
currents and water temperature and periodically we have to come out here and clean them off and
we take that opportunity to dump the data as well.”


Hawley is gathering the data for scientists at several universities and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab. The information helps
them measure the behavior of the dead zone that occurs nearly every year in Lake Erie…


“What we’re trying to do this year is get a more comprehensive picture of how big this low-oxygen zone is and how it changes with time over the year.”


One of the scientists who’ll be pouring over the data is Brian Eadie. He’s a senior scientist with
NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab. He says Lake Erie’s dead zone is a place
where most life can’t survive…


“We’re talking about near the bottom where all or most of the oxygen has been consumed so
there’s nothing for animals to breathe down there, fish or smaller animals.”


Lester Graham: “So, those things that can swim out of the way, do and those that can’t…”


Brian Eadie: “Die.”


The dead zone has been around since at least the 1930’s. It got really bad when there was a huge
increase in the amount of nutrients entering the lake. Some of the nutrients came from sewage,
some from farm fertilizers and some from detergents. The nutrients, chiefly phosphorous, fed an
explosion in algae growth. The algae died, dropped to the bottom of the lake and rotted. That
process robbed the bottom of oxygen. Meanwhile, as spring and summer warmed the surface of
Lake Erie, a thermal barrier was created that trapped the oxygen-depleted water on the bottom.


After clean water laws were passed, sewage treatment plants were built, phosphorous was banned
from most detergents, and better methods to remove phosphorous from industrial applications
were put in place.


Phosphorous was reduced to a third of what it had been. But Brian Eadie says since then
something has changed.


“The concentration of nutrients in the central basin the last few years has actually been going up.
We don’t understand why that’s happening.”


Eadie says there are some theories. Wastewater from sewage plants might be meeting pollution
restrictions, but as cities and suburbs grow, there’s just a lot more of it getting discharged. More
volume means more phosphorous.


It could be that tributaries that are watersheds for farmland are seeing increased phosphorous. Or
it could be that the invasive species, zebra mussel, has dramatically altered the ecology of the
lakes. More nutrients might be getting trapped at the bottom, feeding bacteria that use up oxygen
instead of the nutrients getting taken up into the food chain.


Whatever is happening, environmentalists are hopeful that the scientists figure it out soon.


Andy Buchsbaum heads up the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. He says
the dead zone in the bottom of the lake affects the entire lake’s productivity.


“If you’re removing the oxygen there, for whatever reason, for any period of time, you’ve
completely thrown that whole system out of balance. It’s all out of whack. It could mean
irreversible and devastating change to the entire ecosystem.”


And Buchsbaum says the central basin of Lake Erie is not the only place where we’re seeing this
low-oxygen problem…


“What makes the dead zone in Lake Erie even more alarming is that we’re seeing similar dead
zones appearing in Saginaw Bay which is on Lake Huron and Green Bay in Lake Michigan.
There, too, scientists don’t know what’s causing the problem. But, they’re already seeing
potentially catastrophic effects on aquatic life there.”


State and federal agencies and several universities are looking at the Lake Erie dead zone to try to
figure out what’s going on there. Once they do… then the battle likely will be getting
government to do what’s necessary to fix the problem.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Green Lawns, Dead Lakes

  • A blue-green algae bloom. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The experts who identified the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes for us
say nonpoint source pollution is one of the worst threats. That’s
pollution that doesn’t come out of a pipe but instead is washed from
streets and farm fields… and lawns. Americans use at least three million of tons
of fertilizer on their lawns every year. But the same compounds that make for a lush,
green lawn can make a stinky, slimy mess when they get washed into lakes and rivers.
Sarah Hulett looks at efforts to limit the amount of lawn chemicals that make their way
into the waterways:

Transcript

In our series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes, we’ve been looking
at environmental problems affecting the health of the lakes. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham is guiding us through the
issues one-by-one:


The experts who identified the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes for us
say nonpoint source pollution is one of the worst threats. That’s
pollution that doesn’t come out of a pipe but instead is washed from
streets and farm fields… and lawns. Americans use at least three million of tons
of fertilizer on their lawns every year. But the same compounds that make for a lush,
green lawn can make a stinky, slimy mess when they get washed into lakes and rivers.
Sarah Hulett looks at efforts to limit the amount of lawn chemicals that make their way
into the waterways:


When newspaper headlines decried the death of Lake Erie in the 1970’s, Americans got
familiar with a new enemy of the environment. Scientists named phosphorus the major
culprit in the lake’s decline. And the reaction went a long way toward cleaning up the
lake: billions of dollars went into upgrades for wastewater treatment plants to reduce
phosphorus from sewage. And phosphate detergents have been mostly phased out of use.


But now that regulators have gotten a handle on the phosphorus coming from the most
obvious sources, they’re left with a much more difficult task: reducing phosphorus from
countless smaller sources that together add up to a lot of pollution.


One of those sources is lawn fertilizer. And Glenn Short says it’s easy to see what
happens when that fertilizer gets washed into the lake where he lives.


(sound of ducks quacking and waves)


“You have this, like, green slime floating all over the top of the lake water. Just pops up
everywhere and it can fill the entire lake surface – especially in the calmer bays. It can be
just miserable for swimming and things like that.”


Short sits on the board of the Lake Sherwood Association, in southeast Michigan. His
neighbors asked him to lobby the township to pass a ban on phosphorus fertilizer to
reduce the algae that takes over the lake in the summers. But he says at first, he was
reluctant to do it.


“I’m like any other homeowner. I don’t want government telling me what to do with my
own property. If I want a really nice lawn, I felt that I should be able to have one.”


But he started doing some research. And he found that enough phosphorus will
eventually kill a lake.


“Over a period of time, you get more and more organic material growing, you kill it off,
you just start filling up your lake. And eventually you have no lake anymore. You just
have a wetland. Well, I like my lake. I mean, I live on a lake. I like to use my lake.”


So Short drafted an ordinance to ban fertilizers containing phosphorus, and his township
board passed it. Several other local governments in the region have also enacted limits or
outright bans. And the state of Minnesota has statewide limits on phosphorus fertilizers.


It’s an approach the landscape industry calls unnecessary.


Gary Eichen is with Mike’s Tree Surgeons in southeast Michigan. It’s a company that’s
signed onto an initiative aimed at environmentally responsible lawn care.


(sound of spreader)


The company uses zero-phosphorus fertilizer on almost all the lawns it treats. Back at the
office, Eichen says the problem isn’t the chemicals – it’s that most homeowners don’t
know how to use them.


“They purchase from a source that is not educated in what the products are. He goes
home and starts going through this giant label on the back, and most of it might as well
be Egyptian hieroglyphics. He has no idea. So he ends up over-applying or incorrectly
applying.”


Eichen says there would be far fewer problems with runoff if homeowners left fertilizing
to the professionals. And he says it’s tough for the experts to stay in business when
there’s a patchwork of local ordinances to regulate chemicals like phosphorus.


But that’s exactly what the Environmental Protection Agency is asking communities to
do. Brad Garmon of the Michigan Environmental Council says that kind of bottom-up
regulation presents some challenges.


“It’s very difficult to see what’s working and what’s not, and to chart success. And I
know that a lot of the state programs are re-evaluating right now to see if the approach
they’ve been using over the last five or ten years has been working.”


It’ll take at least another five to ten years for Glenn Short to see the results of his
community’s phosphorus ban. The lake he lives on is part of a river system that
eventually dumps into Lake Erie. But he says just like that Great Lake, it’ll be worth the
wait and the effort to see his small lake bounce back to health.


For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Rethinking Urban Runoff

  • Everybody's got a gutter... and they're part of the urban runoff problem. Rain picks up dirty soot and other chemicals from roofs and heads into the gutter. During storms, the dirty water rushes down the gutters and down streets into storm drains... and can pollute beaches, drinking water and wildlife habitat. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

One of the ten threats to the Great Lakes identified by experts across the region is nonpoint
source runoff. It’s a catchall category for pollution that’s not being spewed from one identifiable
source. The federal government’s finding that rain washing off concrete and asphalt in cities and
suburbs poses as big a threat to the Great Lakes as waste coming out of a factory pipe. Shawn
Allee has a look at the government’s effort to cut water pollution by remaking the urban
landscape:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series on Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham is our guide through the series. Today a look at a broad problem
with no simple solution:


One of the ten threats to the Great Lakes identified by experts across the region is nonpoint
source runoff. It’s a catchall category for pollution that’s not being spewed from one identifiable
source. The federal government’s finding that rain washing off concrete and asphalt in cities and
suburbs poses as big a threat to the Great Lakes as waste coming out of a factory pipe. Shawn
Allee has a look at the government’s effort to cut water pollution by remaking the urban
landscape:


(rain running into a sewer)


Water from a rain gutter is pouring into a nearby storm sewer drain. That protects property from
water damage and flooding. But at the same time, they pose an environmental problem for the
Great Lakes.


Roofs, streets and parking lots are made of hard materials like concrete or asphalt. During
storms, rain rushes off these surfaces into storm drains.


The problem is this: the runoff isn’t pure.


Brian Bell’s a storm water expert with the Environmental Protection Agency. He says rain picks
up pollutants on all those roofs and streets, things such as:


“Antifreeze from cars, motor oil, brake fluid, copper from the brake pads, cigarette butts from
trash, household hazardous waste, pesticides that may be overapplied.”


And for most sewer systems, that’s not the worst of it.


“The problem with storm water is, once its mobilized and goes into a storm sewer system, that
system does not treat the waste, so all of those things go to the local waterway untreated.”


In this region, runoff flows into the Great Lakes, where it pollutes beaches, drinking water, and
wildlife habitat.


To fight this, the EPA’s trying something new. It wants to make hard, urban landscapes softer.
The idea’s to replace concrete and asphalt with more soil and plants. That way, water can sink
into the ground and stay out of storm drains.


But how do you do that?


Well, the EPA’s working with places like the Chicago Center for Green Technology to show people
how. The city hopes residents and developers will use what they see here in their own projects.


(city sounds in)


Grace Troccolo’s guiding a tour of the facility.


First stop?


“Our parking lot is slightly pitched, so all of our rainwater flows off into these vegetated bioswales,
which when I’m not with people in the business, I call ‘ditch with plants.'”

The plants aren’t typical bushes or flowers. They’re mostly tall, prairie grasses native to the
Midwest. Their roots help water seep deep into the ground. The Center has several bio-swales,
and they all keep runoff on site and in the ground.


Another stop on the tour is a 40-foot section of the building’s roof. It’s covered with a matt of
short, tangled creeping plants. Grace explains why they’re here.


“So here we are at our green roof. Again, getting back to our issue of storm water management,
the city would like to see more vegetated surfaces and of course, in the city like Chicago there are
a lot of roof surfaces and so this section of the roof is designed to hold all of the rainwater that
falls on it during a one-inch storm.”


Again, the roof’s vegetation retains water and keeps it out of storm drains. Because of these
technologies, the building is an urban runoff success story.


All told, the Center releases less than half as much water to storm drains as similar buildings do.


The EPA wants the average home or business owner to follow suit, but price might keep that from
happening. Green roofs, for example, are more expensive than conventional ones.


But some observers say the biggest obstacles in fighting urban runoff are political. Stephen
Bocking teaches environmental policy at Trent University. He says the public’s used to pointing
fingers at a handful of big, industrial polluters.


People just aren’t used to seeing every house and business as a source of pollution.


“It’s much more difficult to deal with the problem when you’re talking about millions of separate
sources. People can’t just say well, it’s the job of industry or the job of the government to deal with
it. It’s the job of everyone to deal with it in some way.”


In other words, we’re all to blame.


Every new building in a city, or home in a subdivision, creates more hard surfaces, such as new
driveways, new parking lots and new roofs.


“It’s pretty hard to deal with a form of development which is intrinsic to our way of life. It involves
thinking about how we live our lives and how design and build our cities.”


Bocking says the EPA’s plan might not be enough to make up for all the roads and other hard
surfaces we’re building. He says, to succeed, we’ll need to change how we develop land.


There’s not much political support to stop that kind of development right now, so for the time
being, hard surfaces will continue to win out.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Rethinking Water Runoff Design

  • Rainwater that falls on paved areas is diverted into drains and gutters. If the rainfall is heavy enough, the diverted water can cause flash flooding in nearby rivers and streams. (Photo by Michele L.)

Some planning experts are worried that the rapid development in cities and suburbs is paving over too much land and keeping water from replenishing aquifers below ground. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports:

Transcript

Some planning experts are worried that the rapid development in cities and suburbs is
paving over too much land and keeping water from replenishing aquifers below ground.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


In nature… when it rains… the water slowly soaks into the ground and makes its way
through the soil and rock to eventually be stored as groundwater. Some of it makes its
way underground to be stored in aquifers. And some of it slowly seeps through the rock
for a while and then resurfaces as springs to feed streams during times when there’s not a
lot of rain. It’s a natural storage system and a lot of cities rely on that water.


But when we build buildings and houses and parking lots and roads, a lot of the land
where the rain used to soak into the ground is covered up. Instead the rainwater runs off
the hard surfaces and rushes to stormwater gutters and ditches and then overloads creeks
and rivers. Even where there are big expansive lawns in the suburbs… the rain doesn’t
penetrate the ground in the same way it does in the wild. The grass on lawns has shallow
roots and the surface below is compact… where naturally-occurring plants have deep
roots that help the water on its way into the earth.


Don Chen is the Executive Director of the organization Smart Growth America. His
group tries to persuade communities to avoid urban sprawl by building clustering houses
and business districts closer together and leave more natural open space.


“With denser development you have a much lower impact per household in terms of
polluted runoff.”


Chen says the rain washes across driveways and parking lots, washing engine oil, and
exhaust pollutants straight into streams and rivers instead of letting the water filter across
green space.


Besides washing pollutants into the lakes and streams… the sheer volume of water that
can’t soak into the ground and instead streams across concrete and asphalt and through
pipes can cause creeks to rise and rise quickly.


Andi Cooper is with Conservation Design Forum in Chicago. Her firm designs
landscapes to better handle water…


“Flooding is a big deal. It’s costly. That’s where we start talking about economics. We
spend billions and billions of dollars each year in flood damage control.”


Design firms such as Cooper’s are trying to get developers and city planners to think
about all that water that used to soak into the ground, filtering and being cleaned up a bit
by the natural processes.


Smart Growth America’s Don Chen says those natural processes are called infiltration….
and Smart Growth helps infiltration…


“And the primary way in which it does is to preserve open space to allow for natural
infiltration of water into the land so that there’s not as much pavement and hard surfaces
for water to bounce off of and then create polluted runoff.”


People such as Chen and Cooper are bumping up against a couple of centuries or more of
engineering tradition. Engineers and architects have almost always tried to get water
away from their creations as fast and as far as possible. Trying to slow down the water…
and giving it room to soak into the ground is a relatively new concept.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to get communities to give the idea
some consideration. Geoff Anderson is the Acting Chief of Staff for the EPA’s Office of
Policy, Economics and Innovation.


“Anything you can do to keep that water on site and have it act more like it does in its
natural setting, anything you can do to sort of keep that recharge mechanism working,
that’s helpful.”


The EPA does not require that kind of design. It leaves that to local governments and the
private sector. The Conservation Design Forum’s Andi Cooper says sometimes getting
companies to think about treating water as a resource instead of a nuisance is a hard
sell…


“You know, this is risky. People tell us this is risky. ‘I don’t want to do this; it’s not the
norm.’ It’s becoming less risky over time because there are more and more
demonstrations to point to and say ‘Look, this is great. It’s working.’ ”


But… corporate officials are hesitant. Why take a chance on something new? They fear
if something goes wrong the boss will be ticked off every time there’s a heavy rain.
Cooper says, though, it works… and… reminds them that investors like companies that
are not just economically savvy… but also have an environmental conscience.


“A lot of companies are game. They’re open. If we can present our case that yes, it
works; no, it’s not risky; it is the ethical thing to do; it is aesthetically pleasing; there are
studies out there that show you can retain your employees, you can increase their
productivity if you give them open spaces to walk with paths and make it an enjoyable
place to come to work everyday.”


So… doing the right thing for the environment… employees… and making investors
happy… make Wall Street risk takers willing to risk new engineering to help nature
handle some of the rain and get it back into the aquifers and springs that we all value.


For the GLRC… this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

How Long Do You Keep a Polluting Heap?

  • Motor oil dripping from cars can add up and end up contaminating waterways and sediments. (Photo by Brandon Blinkenberg)

Industries and companies get labeled as
“polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the
problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your
Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca
Williams finds herself in that dilemma:

Transcript

Industries and companies get labeled as “polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams finds herself in that dilemma:


(sound of car starting)


This is my ‘89 Toyota Camry. It has 188,000 miles on it. Pieces of
plastic trim fly off on the highway, and I have to climb in from the
backseat when my door gets frozen in the winter. But I got it for free, I get good gas mileage, and my insurance is cheap. But now, it’s leaking oil – lots of oil. I knew it was bad when I started
pouring in a quart of oil every other week.


I thought I’d better take it in to the shop.


(sound of car shop)


My mechanic, Walt Hayes, didn’t exactly have good news for me.


“You know, you’re probably leaking about 80% of that, just from experience, I’d say
you’re burning 20% and leaking 80%.”


Walt says the rear main seal is leaking, and the oil’s just dripping
straight to the ground. Walt tells me the seal costs 25 dollars, but he’d
have to take the transmission out to get to the seal. That means I’d be
paying him 650 dollars.


650 bucks to fix an oil leak, when no one would steal my car’s radio. There’s no way. Obviously, it’s cheaper to spend two dollars on each quart of oil, than to fix the seal.


“Right – what else is going to break, you know? You might fix the rear main
seal, and your transmission might go out next week or something. Your car,
because of its age, is on the edge all the time. So to invest in a 25 dollar seal, spending a lot of money for labor, almost doesn’t make sense on an
older car.”


That’s my mechanic telling me not to fix my car. In fact, he says he’s seen
plenty of people driving even older Toyotas, and he says my engine will
probably hold out a while longer. But now I can’t stop thinking about the
quarts of oil I’m slowly dripping all over town.


I need someone to tell me: is my one leaky car really all that bad? Ralph
Reznick works with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He
spends his time trying to get polluters to change their behavior.


“That’s a lot for an old car. If you were the only car in the parking lot,
that wouldn’t be very much. But the fact is, there’s a lot of cars just
like yours that are doing the same thing.”


Reznick says the oil and antifreeze and other things that leak from and fall
off cars like mine add up.


“The accumulative impact of your car and other cars, by hitting the
pavement, and washing off the pavement into the waterways, is a very large
impact. It’s one of the largest sources of pollution we’re dealing with
today.”


Reznick says even just a quart of oil can pollute thousands of gallons of
water. And he says toxins in oil can build up in sediment at the bottom of
rivers and lakes. That can be bad news for aquatic animals and plants.
There’s no question – he wants me to fix the leak.


But I am NOT pouring 650 bucks into this car when the only thing it has going
for it is that it’s saving me money. So I can either keep driving it, and
feel pretty guilty, or I can scrap it and get a new car.


But it does take a lot of steel and plastic and aluminum to make a new car.
Maybe I’m doing something right for the environment by driving a car that’s
already got that stuff invested in it.


I went to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan
and talked to Greg Keoleian. He’s done studies on how many years it makes
sense to keep a car. He says if you look at personal costs, and the energy
that goes into a making a midsize car, it makes sense to hang onto it for a
long time… like 16 years.


No problem there – I finally did something right!


Well, sort of.


“In your case, from an emissions point of view, you should definitely
replace your vehicle. It turns out that a small fraction of vehicles are
really contributing to a lot of the local air pollution. Older vehicles
tend to be more polluting, and you would definitely benefit the environment
by retiring your vehicle.”


Keoleian says if I get a newer car, it won’t be leaking oil, and it won’t
putting out nearly as much nitrogen oxide and other chemicals that lead to
smog. Oh yeah, he also says I really need to start looking today.


And so doing the right thing for the environment is going to cost me money.
There’s no way around that. The more I think about my rusty old car, the
more I notice all the OTHER old heaps on the road. Maybe all of you are a
bit like me, hoping to make it through just one more winter without car
payments.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Rain Gardens Prevent Pollution

  • Homeowners across the Midwest are discovering the benefits of rain gardens. Slightly sunken areas of native plants hold heavy rains and cleanse runoff as it sinks slowly into the ground. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

A good Midwestern summer storm can dump a lot of water in one place. Sometimes there’s so much rainwater, it overwhelms the underground sewage pipes. The rainwater mixes with untreated sewage and washes into lakes and rivers. Cities around the country are each spending millions of dollars to solve the problem. In one city, officials are encouraging people to build “rain gardens.” The perennial gardens are designed to hold rainwater and let it seep gradually into the ground. In another installment of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s “Your Choice; Your Planet” series… Stephanie Hemphill reports:

Transcript

A good midwestern summer storm can dump a lot of water in one
place. Sometimes there’s so much rainwater, it floods into the
underground pipes that carry sewer waste. It mixes with untreated
sewage and washes into lakes and rivers. Cities around the country
are each spending millions of dollars to solve the problem. In one
city, officials are encouraging people to build “rain gardens.” The
perennial gardens are designed to hold rainwater and let it seep
gradually into the ground. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Stephanie Hemphill reports:


The sewage treatment plant sits right on the waterfront of Lake
Superior in Superior, Wisconsin. You can see treatment tanks and
pump houses at the edge of the lake, and lately you can also see
gardens. They’re demonstration plots, showing how homeowners
can help solve a serious problem. Each garden is like a shallow
bowl; about six inches lower than the surrounding ground. The
buildings next to the gardens have down spouts that carry water from
the roofs right into the gardens.


Charlene Johnson is creating these rain gardens. She digs away the
surface soil, adds compost, and then plants native grasses and
perennials.


“We’ve got the Golden alexander starting to bloom, this one has
purple coneflower, Green-headed coneflower, Cardinal flower, the
bonisette.”


They’re pretty and they’re all plants that can live with a lot of water, or
just a little. Johnson says they do a much better job of holding onto
rainwater than a regular lawn, because they have deep roots.

“You know, the average lawn is about 1-2 inches. Therefore you’d
only have one or two inches of roots. Roots equal storage capacity.
Also as the roots penetrate through the ground, they die back, and
those holes can also be used for storm water retention.”

That helps keep some of the rainwater from rushing into the sewer
system. Johnson would like it if every yard in Superior had a rain
garden. The ideal size depends on the size of the house and the
type of soil in the yard, but they’re usually about the size of a small
patio.


A lot of us are building water gardens these days – small pools or
ponds – but a rain garden is different. It’s not designed to hold water
or goldfish. It’s designed to absorb big rains and let them sink slowly
into the ground.


“Plants and soil naturally cleanse pollutants from water. By the time it
recharges into the groundwater aquifers, the water is essentially
clean. ”


Charlene Johnson says rain gardens cost about the same to build as
any other perennial garden – between $3 and 5 a square foot. Most
of that is to buy plants, so it’s a one-time purchase. Even if it’s not
that expensive, you might be thinking it’s still a lot of money just to
help the city save on treating sewage, but Johnson says it can pay off
in the long run, because keeping rainwater out of the sewage
treatment system, means the city won’t have to treat as much
volume. That saves money and keeps your monthly sewer bill lower.


Your rain garden will also help the environment by keeping the rush
of water from overwhelming the sewer system and sending it into the
river or lake near your home.


On the other side of town, Jan Murphy says she loves her rain
garden. She built it seven years ago when she built her bookstore
and coffee shop in Superior.


(sound of blackbird)


“We’ve had ducks. That’s a baby redwing blackbird I believe, it’s
been very delightful. We’ve had lots of little critters in here from time
to time. ”


Runoff from the bookstore parking lot flows into the garden, where the cattails and other
native plants clean it up before it seeps into the city storm water system. Now, if you and
your neighbors build rain gardens, it still might not completely solve your city’s problems
with storm water runoff, but the experts say it can help.


Kurt Soderberg directs the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in
Duluth. He says rainwater picks up all kinds of pollution as it flows
across parking lots, streets, and yards, and eventually into rivers and
lakes.


“Rainwater is a big impact on water quality. Whether it’s sediment
washing into the lake, whether it’s fecal coliform going into the creeks
and the lakes, there are a whole lot of reasons why you want to stop
storm water from rushing into the natural bodies of water. ”


Soderberg says rain gardens can filter and clean the water before it
reaches lakes and rivers. A lot of cities are spending millions of
dollars each, trying to keep storm water from overwhelming the sewer
system. Soderberg says rain gardens could be part of the solution.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

Government Aims to Remedy Gulf ‘Dead Zone’

  • Although government programs offer incentives for farmers to plant grassy buffers between farm fields and waterways, many farmers don't bother with the voluntary efforts to reduce nitrogen. A new push to reduce nitrogen runoff is in the works in an effort to reduce the size of a 'Dead Zone' in the Gulf of Mexico believed to be caused by excess nitrogen runoff from Midwest farms. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The government is looking at programs to reduce the amount of fertilizer runoff from farms that ends up in streams and rivers. It’s necessary because 41 percent of the continental U.S. drains into the Mississippi River and all that runoff is dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. There, it’s causing a ‘dead zone’ where fish and other aquatic life can’t live. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

The government is looking at programs to reduce the amount of fertilizer runoff from farms that
ends up in streams and rivers. It’s necessary because 41-percent of the continental U.S. drains
into the Mississippi River and all that runoff is dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. There it’s
causing a ‘dead zone’ where fish and other aquatic life can’t live. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Each year about one-and-a-half million metric tons of nitrogen is dumped into the Gulf of
Mexico. Plants feed on nitrogen, so there are huge algae blooms, far more than the tiny aquatic
animals that feed on algae can eat. The algae eventually dies and begins to decompose. That process
depletes oxygen from the water. Fish and other marine life need oxygen to live. So they leave
the oxygen-depleted area or die. It’s called a ‘dead zone.’ In recent years that ‘dead zone’ in the
Gulf of Mexico has been as large as the state of New Jersey.


Don Scavia is Chief Scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s
National Ocean Service. He says it looks as though much of that nitrogen comes from farms in
the Mississippi basin.


“The most significant change in the nitrogen load into the basin is actually coming from
agricultural application of fertilizer. That application rate has more than tripled since the 1950’s,
corresponding to almost a tripling of nitrogen loss from that system into the Gulf.”


Farms that are hundreds of miles from the Mississippi River drain into the Mississippi River
basin. The basin stretches from Montana to the southwest tip of New York. It includes all or
parts of 31 states.


Nitrogen exists naturally in the environment. But growing corn and some other crops on the
same land year after year depletes nitrogen. So farmers fertilize the land to bolster nitrogen
levels. Sometimes they use animal manure, but often they use man-made fertilizers such as
anhydrous ammonia.


David Salmonsen is with the American Farm Bureau.


“Well, for several crops, especially out into the upper parts of the Mississippi River basin, the
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, southern Minnesota, the great Corn Belt, you need nitrogen as a basic
additive and basic element to grow, to grow these crops.”


But often farmers use more nitrogen than they really need to use. It’s called an “insurance”
application. Farmers gamble that using an extra 10 to 20 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre
will pay off in better crop yields – more corn. A lot of times, that gamble doesn’t pay off because
rain washes the extra nitrogen off the field. Salmonsen says slowly farmers are moving toward
more precise nitrogen application.


“Try and get away from what, you know, for years has been a practice among some people, they
say ‘Well, we’ll do what they call insurance fertilization. We got to have the crop. It may be a
little more than what we need, but we’ll know we have enough,’ because they just didn’t have the
management tools there to get this so precisely refined down to have just the right amount of
fertilizer.”


Salmonsen says with global satellite positioning tools, computers, and better monitoring farmers
will soon just be using the nitrogen they need. But, it’s not clear that farmers will give up the
insurance applications of nitrogen even with better measurements.


The government is getting involved in the nitrogen-loading problem. A task force has been
meeting to determine ways to reduce the amount of nitrogen that reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
Among the strategies being considered are applying nitrogen fertilizer at lower rates, getting
farmers to switch from row crops to perennial crops so they don’t have to fertilize every year,
planting cover crops during fall and winter to absorb nitrogen, establishing artificial wetlands in drainage areas to absorb nitrogen and getting
farmers to plant buffer strips of grass between farm fields and nearby waterways to filter out nitrogen.


Tom Christiansen is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He says while the government task
force is considering recommending some specific basin-wide reductions in nitrogen use the
USDA is only looking at the problem farm-by-farm.


“We get good conservation on the land, good water quality in the local streams and that will
benefit the Gulf. So, we’re working on a site-specific basis. We haven’t established any kind of
nation-wide goal for nutrient reduction.”


Unlike other industries, the government is reluctant to mandate pollution reduction. Instead of
regulations and fines used to enforce pollutions restrictions with manufacturing, agriculture is
most often encouraged to volunteer to clean up and offered financial incentives to do that. But in
the past farmers have complained that there wasn’t enough money in the programs. Christiansen
says the new farm bill has more money for conservation efforts and that should make it more
appealing for farmers to reduce nitrogen pollution.


“It falls back to good conservation planning, using the correct programs and then providing the
right kind of incentives and benefits to producers because they are taking land out of production
in many cases.”


The government is assuming the voluntary programs will be enough to reduce the nitrogen flow
into the Gulf of Mexico. No one expects the ‘dead zone’ will be eliminated. The best that
they’re hoping for is that it will be significantly reduced.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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Midwest Fertilizer Use Causing Gulf Dead Zone?

  • Commercial shrimpers and fishers in the Gulf of Mexico cannot find anything alive in the 'dead zone.' Research indicates fertilizer runoff from Midwest farms causes the 'dead zone.' (Photo by Lester Graham)

Farmers and lawn care companies in the Midwest use fertilizer to grow better crops and greener lawns. But excess fertilizer is washed downstream by rain, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists say once in the Gulf, it triggers a process that causes a so-called ‘Dead Zone.’ The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Farmers and lawn care companies in the Midwest use fertilizer to grow better crops and greener
lawns. But excess fertilizer is washed downstream by rain, eventually reaching the Gulf of
Mexico. Scientists say once in the Gulf, it triggers a process that causes a so-called ‘Dead Zone.’
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


To get better crop production farmers use anhydrous ammonia to increase nitrogen levels in the
soil. To get greener lawns, homeowners use fertilizers that also can increase nitrogen and other
nutrient levels. But excess nitrogen gets carried away by rainstorms. For all or parts of 31 states,
that nitrogen is washed into ditches and creeks and rivers that are all part of the Mississippi River
basin. All of that land drains into the Mississippi and the Mississippi drains into the Gulf of
Mexico.


Tracy Mehan was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator for
Water. Mehan points out that’s a lot of runoff that ends up in one place…


“It affects most of the inland drainage of the United States from Minnesota, from Ohio, from
Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. So, we’re dealing
with a tremendously broad system here and with tremendous challenges to protect the Gulf of
Mexico.”


Challenges because the nitrogen and other nutrients cause a problem.


Nancy Rabalais is a professor with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. She says the
nitrogen causes a huge bloom of algae…


“Well, the nutrients stimulate the growth of plants just like fertilizers stimulate the growth of a
corn plant. But the plants in the Gulf are microscopic algae.”


Some of the algae is eaten by tiny aquatic animals and fish. But, with a huge algal bloom… some
of it just dies and sinks to the bottom. Those algae cells are consumed by bacteria that also
consume oxygen. Rabalais says that depletes the oxygen in the surrounding water…


“So what basically happens is that the production of algae is just too much for the system to
handle.”


This oxygen starvation is called hypoxia. Marine life can’t live in a hypoxic area. Fish avoid it if
they can by swimming away. Other life that can’t move that fast dies. The size of the hypoxic
zone varies from year to year. Weather across the nation affects the amount of runoff that ends
up in the Gulf, but the trend has been a dead zone that’s gotten bigger over the past twenty
years… and according to Rabalais’ research it has doubled in size since the 1950’s when nitrogen
started being used extensively in agriculture.


(sound of boat engine starting up)


In Louisiana, the commercial fishers and shrimpers are concerned about the ‘dead zone.’ Some of
the smaller operations find it difficult to travel the longer distances to find fish outside the ‘dead
zone.’


Nelwyin McInnis is with the environmental organization, the Nature Conservancy. Walking in a
marsh area in Louisiana, she talked how important it was to that region that farmers and
homeowners in the Midwest do something to try to cut back on the amount of fertilizer that ends
up in the Gulf of Mexico.


“Certainly any ways that you can reduce the fertilizer runoff would certainly be of value. And I
know each farmer can’t imagine their impact hundreds of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico, but
each one adds up and has an effect.”


But powerful agricultural interests say the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico is not caused by
nitrogen fertilizers in the farm belt. The American Farm Bureau has kept up a steady campaign
of denial of responsibility. Reports and essays published by the Farm Bureau question researcher
Nancy Rabalais’ findings. Rabalais says the Farm Bureau can question her all it wants. Her
published work has been reviewed by other scientists in close to a dozen major scientific journals.


“We don’t believe in collecting data and putting it on a shelf. We get it to the scientific public and
we also try to translate it so that the public, including the agricultural community can understand
what it’s saying.”


Whether the agriculture community wants to hear what those data are saying is another question.
However, the government is taking it seriously and is looking at ways to reduce the amount of
nutrients being washed into the Gulf of Mexico.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links