By Laura Arenschield The Columbus Dispatch • Tuesday September 9, 2014 7:43 AM
Federal and state governments aren’t doing enough to keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of their waterways, a key strategy in saving the Gulf of Mexico from a huge, algae-fed “dead zone,” according to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.
In the report, published last week, the agency’s inspector general said that of the 12 main agricultural states in the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin, only two — Ohio and Iowa — have strategies to cut down on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that get into their waterways.
And even Iowa and Ohio have not prevented toxic algae blooms from forming in their own lakes, including Erie.
Both nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to a large low-oxygen dead zone in the gulf, which has threatened aquatic life for decades.
Heidi Griesmer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said that the state has made priorities of the Great Miami, Scioto and Wabash watersheds to cut down on phosphorus and nitrogen runoff that reaches the Ohio River, which feeds into the Mississippi.
“It’s ones where we feel there would be the biggest bang for the buck if we are able to put resources toward them,” Griesmer said.
The Wabash River feeds into Grand Lake St. Marys, a shallow lake in western Ohio and a perennial poster child for toxic algae caused by farm runoff.
Last month, officials in Toledo told 500,000 area residents not to drink the city’s water, which was tainted by a liver toxin in the algae that plagues Lake Erie.
Phosphorus and nitrogen get into the lake from a number of sources, but the biggest contributor is the Maumee River, which runs through farmland in both Indiana and Ohio before reaching Maumee Bay.
Fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen run off from those farms during storms and wash into the streams that feed the Maumee. When they get to Lake Erie, they feed the algae bloom.
A state phosphorus task force has recommended cutting phosphorus runoff by 40 percent in the Maumee River to keep toxic blooms from forming in Lake Erie.
But the state has yet to regulate what comes off of farm fields.
Phosphorus and nitrogen spill into dozens of other rivers across the country that feed the Mississippi, including the Ohio River.
And those rivers get water from streams and rivers that flow through some of the most intensively farmed land in the country.
There are no simple solutions, said Philip Gassman, an environmental scientist at Iowa State University’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Development and co-author of a study on how policies and economics influence the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s easy for the government and some office like the inspector general to come out and say there’s not enough monitoring or regulations, but even if you increase monitoring, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to bring it under control,” he said.
The inspector general recommended that state and federal water officials come up with plans to develop and enhance monitoring systems to track nutrients in the Mississippi River’s watershed.