The Sangamon and the Gulf

I took an autumn walk in the cool, crisp air along the bank of the Sangamon River.

Above me, the brilliant sun filtered through the leafy forest canopy in crimsons, yellows, ambers, oranges and greens, all against a backdrop of the brightest, deepest cobalt blue sky.

Below me, in the dry weather of fall, the Sangamon River flows low, slow and surprisingly clear, allowing me to see the sandy river bottom.

Yes, an autumn walk in the deciduous forest lowlands along the Sangamon River can be almost stunning.

Meanwhile down south, out in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, where the mighty, sprawling Mississippi River drains the entire midsection of the North American continent, another picture develops.

As of August 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico has grown to 6,474 square miles, the largest it has been since 2011, and still far short of the 2015 goal of 1,930 square miles set by the Environmental Protection Agency. So – conveniently – the EPA has simply pushed back its goal ‘til 2035.

NOAA points out that the 2015 Dead Zone is “larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.” Last year, it was apparently only the size of Connecticut. So this year, we’ve added the area of an entire US state – albeit Rhode Island – to the Dead Zone. Apparently the Gulf’s Dead Zone is the second largest “human-caused hypoxic area in the entire world.” Much of this year’s reported expansion was apparently due to heavier than usual June rains throughout the Midwest.

According to NOAA, Dead Zones, or “hypoxia areas”, are caused by “nutrient runoff from agricultural and other human activities in the watershed and are highly affected by river discharge and nitrogen loads. These nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes, and consumes the oxygen needed to support life in the Gulf.”

The Gulf Dead Zone threatens the commercial and recreational fishers and causes “habitat loss, displacement of fish and loss of reproductive ability in some species,” according to NOAA.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution fuel algal growth that deprives the water of oxygen needed to support life. Algae can also contain toxins that can kill fish, livestock and pets, and make people very sick.

Meanwhile, back here in Illinois, another picture develops.  It seems that the clarity of the Sangamon in autumn belies its contribution to the Gulf’s Dead Zone.

Now we trace the Dead Zone upstream; out of the freshwater rivers and up on the land to the source of the issue. Good river stewardship – which starts with good land stewardship – is vital in the efforts to reduce the Gulf Dead Zone and protect rivers like the Sangamon.

And so in July 2015 the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency released Illinois’ “Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.”  According to scientists, a 45% reduction in nutrient pollution from Illinois and the other states along the Mississippi River is necessary to adequately reduce the size of the Gulf’s Dead Zone. This voluntary strategy attempts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from Illinois farms and sewage treatment plants. It’s a great idea, setting aside the need for direct government involvement through regulation and encouraging voluntary compliance because it’s the right thing to do.

And most of the recommendations consist of simple good land stewardship practices such as planting cover crops to help retain nutrients over the winter months, planting buffer strips along riverways to absorb and reduce direct runoff, and creating “grassed waterways” in fields along the low lying areas where water travels to reduce soil erosion.

But does it all work?

If you’re in the agriculture business, you’re probably already aware of the problem, aware of the NLRS and aware of the solutions. So I’m writing this for the rest of us.

I took an autumn drive in the cool, crisp air down the by-ways of our county and township roads.

Above me, the brilliant sun shown down on recently harvested, fawn-colored fields under the brightest, deepest cobalt blue sky.

And as I drive, I note the good stewardship of our land: I see the first green of this winter’s cover crops springing up between the rows of recently cut corn. I note the grassed waterways winding through fields and planted buffer strips along waterways.

All of which should make a healthy difference in retaining nutrients and soil in the fields rather than washing down into our waterways, into the Sangamon, on down to the Mississippi, and ultimately protecting the Gulf and helping to reduce its Dead Zone.

Yes, an autumn drive, in which I realize the inherent connection of distant things such as the Sangamon and the Gulf of Mexico, can be almost stunning.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, October 22, 2015, by Scott Hays

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