NPR - Morning Edition

Troubled Seas
Report: Farm Belt Runoff Prime Source of Ocean Pollution

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Farm runoff throughout the Midwest finds its way into the Mississippi, which then dumps the chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico. Shown here in red, the gulf's oxygen-poor "dead zone", or hypoxic zone, created by the runoff. Graphic: U.S. Geological Survey
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Jan. 15, 2002 -- It's been more than 30 years since the United States conducted a comprehensive review of ocean policy. Back in 1969, a federal report on oceans prompted regulations aimed at preventing over-fishing and led to the creation of a federal oceans agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A private commission, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust, is conducting a second policy review, and the news isn't good. For Morning Edition, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

The Pew Oceans Commission has spent the last two years conducting a top-to-bottom review of the greatest challenges to the seas: over-fishing, coastal development and pollution. Partnering with top scientists, the panel's investigations took them on fact-finding trips to the coastal towns of Maine to study the cod industry, to the Gulf of Mexico to study pollution -- and perhaps most surprisingly -- to a city in the heart of the farm belt and 1,000 miles away from the nearest coast, Des Moines, Iowa.

Investigators looked at farming's effect on the oceans -- and they found a devastating relationship. The Pew commission's report concludes that farm runoff has become the main source of pollution in the oceans.

The problem begins with nitrogen fertilizer, says former Kansas governor and commission member Mike Hayden. Farmers use large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer because it's an inexpensive way to improve their yields. But the chemical plant food doesn't stay on the farmland. It seeps into groundwater and streams, then into the Mississippi River, and ultimately it winds up in the Gulf of Mexico. Each state along the Mississippi is responsible for tracking local water quality, says Hayden, but no one is responsible for monitoring the cumulative effect.

The runoff has created a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where marine life suffocates and dies in the oxygen-depleted waters. The zone has doubled in size since the early 1990s and now covers an area about as large the state of Massachusetts. University of Louisiana marine biologist Nancy Rabalais dives down into the dead zone a couple times a month to monitor changes. "You don't see any fish," says Rabalais, just "decomposing bodies lying in sediment."

Scientists nailed down this connection between the dead zone and farm runoff nearly five years ago. But there's still no nationwide policy aimed at reducing the runoff. In fact, farm runoff is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act.

Don Boesch, a marine biologist at the University of Maryland, says that's because of all the federal agencies that have a hand in regulating water. None is able to look beyond its narrow authority to address the big picture issues, he says.

The Pew commission concludes that this system of fragmented regulation is perhaps a bigger problem than the individual threats to the oceans. And that system won't be easy to reform.

Leon Panetta, commission chair and former chief of staff to President Clinton, says there are too many political interests involved, and he expects opposition to even the simplest recommendations.

But at the very least, says Panetta, the commission and its comprehensive report can get the news out about how close the troubled seas are to crisis.

In Depth

pollution related stories Browse for more NPR stories about pollution.

Other Resources

• Read more about the Pew Oceans Commission.

• Read the Pew commission's fact sheet on marine pollution.

• Read about the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone at NOAA online.

• Read more about the Mississippi River watershed at the Mississippi River Basin Alliance Web site.

• Read more about government efforts to protect and sustain the nation's oceans at the National Marines Fisheries Service Web site.

• Read about all things ocean at NOAA's Web site.