By Aimee Nielson
Somewhere along the Louisiana coast, a frustrated fisherman is no doubt looking out on the Gulf of Mexico wondering how he can stop the oxygen-depleted dead zone from encroaching on his livelihood. But it’s way beyond his control; the problem begins nearly 1,500 miles upstream at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Water flows and collects runoff from roughly 41 percent of the United States, and Kentucky is a large contributor.
“Every Kentucky river, creek, and stream eventually meets the Mississippi River,” said Steve Higgins, director of environmental compliance for the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. “That means virtually everything farmers, landowners, and homeowners put into those waters eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico.”
Higgins works with Amanda Gumbert, UKAg water quality extension specialist, to conduct extension programs and educate farmers about ways they can manage nutrients to lessen Kentucky’s impact on the dead zone.
“We explain specific practices that farmers can do on their farms to prevent the loss of excess manure, sediment, and fertilizer,” she said. “We are trying to help them understand that their local creek goes to a bigger creek that goes to a river that eventually goes into the Gulf. So many people don’t understand the watershed concept. They think that if they don’t live on the Ohio River, they aren’t impacting it, but they are. We all impact it. So we are trying to educate and change that mindset to one that understands all water flows downstream and impacts water far beyond Kentucky.”
Ebb and Flow
A dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is formed by nutrients that wash from the Mississippi River into the Gulf waters. Nitrogen and phosphorus, mostly from agricultural lands upstream, do the most harm. These nutrients form algal blooms that basically suck up oxygen in deep water, making it impossible for marine life to survive—a condition referred to as hypoxia. Some fish and shrimp swim away from the area and reach more oxygen-rich water. In areas where oxygen is not fully depleted, fish may survive, but reproduction and spawning suffer.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the size of Connecticut in 2014. Measured each summer, the zone's size is a yardstick of any progress in the reduction of nutrient inputs into the gulf. Photo by Nancy Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium
Each year scientists take a survey “cruise” to determine the size of the dead zone, because it ebbs and flows depending on nutrient load and weather. The 2014 cruise revealed the zone is about as large as Connecticut. That’s smaller than its average size of 5,500 square miles, but nowhere near the goal scientists have set of fewer than 1,900 square miles by 2015.
The zone peaks from late spring until late summer, when Mother Nature typically has the greatest chance to intervene. Weather can significantly impact it. In 1988, a severe drought caused the Mississippi River to stop flowing, making it impossible for excess nutrients to reach the area. Tropical storms act as a giant whisk, churning the waters and breaking up the zone.
Dead zones are not just a phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico; they can develop in any large body of water such as the Great Lakes or the Chesapeake Bay. Dead zones in the Great Lakes can make them unsafe for swimming and threaten drinking water for large populations.
Kentucky’s Role and Responsibility
“The Environmental Protection Agency has called for a 45 percent reduction in nutrients in the Mississippi River, and we are part of the Mississippi River basin,” Gumbert said. “We are part of a group of southern states forming a research group to specifically deal with hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Kentucky’s karst topography means a lot of springs, sinkholes, and caves.
“The Corvettes falling into the sinkhole at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green was an unfortunate event, but it really provided a great teaching opportunity for us,” Gumbert explained. “They had no idea that opening could form right there underneath them. There’s a lot of movement and shifting underneath us all the time. Our groundwater interacts with our surface water. We are trying to get people to make the connection that what they do on their land directly affects someone’s drinking water. Anything we put on the land can eventually end up in the water supply or, on a bigger scale, the Gulf of Mexico.”
In 1994, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the Kentucky Agriculture Water Quality Act with a goal of protecting surface and groundwater resources from pollution. It applies to any landowner with 10 or more acres being used for agricultural and forestry activities. Basically, farmers or landowners need to focus on best management practices in six areas: silviculture (forestry), pesticides and fertilizers, farmstead, crops, livestock, and streams and other waters.
Part of the solution is convincing farmers to implement agriculture water quality plans that address the way they deal with excess nutrients. Gumbert and Higgins are working with Kentucky producers to help them understand the legislation and find ways to implement the best management practices.
“Many farmers are willing to comply, others don’t know where to start, and that’s where we come in,” Higgins said. “We want them to understand the basics of getting a soil test to know how much fertilizer they really need on their crops. We want them to think about a covered area to store livestock manure until it is dry and then apply it to crops based on a soil test; use the nutrients in the manure to save money in fertilizer costs.”
Awareness Begins at Home
(l) Todd Clark shows Amanda Gumbert some best management practices he uses on his Fayette
County farm. “I don’t have to go as far as the dead zone to be concerned about water quality.
I am concerned here, before it ever gets to the Kentucky River, to the Ohio, and to the Mississippi."
Todd Clark is a first-generation farmer in Fayette County. He and his wife started farming about 20 years ago near the Fayette-Scott county line. Clark Family Farm is a diverse operation with poultry, beef cattle, sheep, pigs, tobacco, and hay. Clark is passionate about local food and doing things in a natural and environmentally friendly way on the farm. He’s worked with extension to learn how to implement best management practices.
“Hopefully everyone wants to protect where they live,” he said. “When you start selling direct to the consumer, it changes your mindset, not only about how you raise the animals but how you impact the area where you raise them. It’s important to me that my watershed is ultimately the drinking water for Georgetown—for my mom and four of my five brothers and sisters. I don’t want to be responsible for contaminating the water and causing a problem.”
Todd Clark raises free-range chickens that naturally fertilize his pastures. By rotationally grazing his
beef cattle, Clark has found a beneficial system to keep pathogens at bay.
Clark has about 1,000 free-range Rhode Island Red hens that do a pretty good job of spreading their own fertilizer around the pastures. Combined with rotational grazing of beef cattle and hay production, it is a mutually beneficial way of saving money, keeping pathogens at bay, and taking care of the environment. He also maintains fencing around streams and ponds to keep animals out of the water and installs filter fabric and gravel around feeding areas and concrete water troughs.
“I don’t have to go as far as the dead zone (in the Gulf) to be concerned about water quality,” Clark said. “I am concerned here, before it ever gets to the Kentucky River, to the Ohio, and to the Mississippi. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the local food movement—being concerned about where you are and the people around you.”
Beyond the Farm
Agriculture is the largest contributor to nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, but urbanites are not blameless, although they are not subject to the ag water quality act.
Fencing around streams and ponds keeps animals out of the water, which decreases the nitrogen load.
“If you’re going to put chemicals on your lawn, do a soil test and read extension publications that tell you how to have a ‘greener’ lawn,” Gumbert said. “If you have a lawn care service, ask them what they are using. Don’t ever dump anything down a storm drain. Sweep excess fertilizer off the sidewalk, so it’s less likely to be washed into the storm drain. Pick up after your pets, compost your kitchen waste.”
Gumbert explained that if urban dwellers don’t follow these guidelines, they will feel it in their wallet when the water treatment fees start to rise.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to reduce the problem in the Gulf,” she said. “If we start fixing it here, it will definitely have a positive impact down there.”
Kentucky boasts more than 90,000 miles of rivers, creeks, streams, and tributaries—more miles than any state except Alaska.
Brian Lee, professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, began the Kentucky Watershed Atlas Project in 2003 to characterize the state’s 9,109 watersheds based on more than 100 different variables. A watershed is all the land that drains into a particular body of water, like a creek, stream, or river.
“By viewing the landscape from a watershed perspective, we can better understand how land use and management decisions impact waterways and water quality,” Lee said.
Using semi-automated, computer-based models that calculate and combine data around the clock, Lee can compare and contrast forested versus cropland watersheds, or rural versus more concrete-covered urban areas to better develop strategies for improving water quality.
“I use satellite collected data to see how the land changes over time,” he said. “I can use the data to narrow down problem areas and also to find areas where we likely have really good water quality.”
Lee also uses the data to classify watersheds into types to better understand changes that negatively or positively affect water quality. In particular he is interested in characterizing how watershed composition affects nitrogen and phosphorus yield and load to find ways to reduce the excess.
More information about the atlas is available online at http://www.uky.edu/Ag/LA/KLEAR/Watershed_Atlas.htm.