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Restoring the Mississippi, Part 2: Recreating Wetlands in the Midwest

For the last decade, a dead zone the size of New Jersey has been wreaking havoc on Louisiana's billion-dollar seafood industry. But last spring, fishermen got a break. Tropical storms and hurricanes stirred up the Gulf, pumping life-giving oxygen back in the water.

Bill Mitsch: Hypoxia does not need watershed management. Tropical storm and hurricane management. I'm joking, of course.

Bill Mitsch doesn't really believe that hurricanes are the answer. What he does believe is that reducing the amount of nitrogen flowing into the Mississippi River would dramatically reduce coastal dead zones. Mitsch is director of the Olentangy River Wetlands Park in Columbus and a professor of natural resources at Ohio State. At a conference this fall with scientists from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Louisiana, Mitsch said he believes nitrogen used as agricultural fertilizer is the biggest source of the problem.

Bill Mitsch: Here's the pattern that comes off the landscape in the Midwest. From about January through June, there is this tremendous pulse - 5 to 6 to 7 parts per million - trucking right past us on the Olentangy River. That's going down to Louisiana. That's the dead zone in the making.

Nitrogen is essential for growing crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat, the mainstay of Midwestern farmers. After World War II, farmers increased their use of nitrogen, boosting productivity to feed a growing nation. Today, more than 7 million tons of nitrogen are applied as fertilizer on Midwestern farms each year.

But during spring planting, storms wash excess nitrogen off of fields and straight into rivers and streams. Nitrogen-laden water also percolates into the soil, where it's collected by thousands of miles of tile drains built to dry out sodden fields throughout the farm belt. Mitsch says he has a solution that will capture nitrogen from both sources.

Bill Mitsch: You're going to have to put something between agricultural fields and streams, rivers, lakes, and I would even say ditches. And that would be either created or restored wetlands or restored riparian bottom lands. 24 million acres of work needs to be done out there, folks. The scale is enormous, but then, you remember, it was an enormous basin to begin with.

What Mitsch and other researchers are proposing would mean that individual Ohio farmers would have to stop plowing 3% of their farmland, an expensive proposition for an economy already on the edge. Mitsch says he's not blaming farmers and he isn't asking for government regulation. In fact, some farmers are already experimenting with wetlands on their own.

Paul Sipp owns an 1,100-acre farm near Marysville west of Columbus, planted each spring with traditional row crops. He's restored several acres of wet woods on his property and he says he's already beginning to see the benefits.

Paul Sipp: This channels a lot of water, especially in the spring. Where it'll come in out of the field and let us get into the area along the edge of this woods much earlier. And you know, part of it's just being able to use the land, being able to come out here and watch the ducks and maybe get one for dinner. You know, drive the kids around in the woods and show them wildlife. Let the dog run around like an idiot and come home stinky.

Sipp's restoration project didn't come cheap. He says it cost about $25,000 and a month of hard labor to create his wetland pools. That's why farmers and researchers alike are hoping for government subsidies to help pay for wetland projects. Once they're built, the wetlands will function by themselves. But will farmers buy into the idea? Joe Logan, director of the Ohio Farmer's Union, thinks they will.

Joe Logan: Now you're getting into an area of the sorts of practices that I think farmers would be very interested in taking a look at.

The most recent farm bill sets aside $18 million for conservation funding, but researchers say that won't be enough. Other sources could include the $14 billion proposed for Louisiana's coastal restoration project, funds not yet approved by Congress. No one is willing to speculate on a final price tag, but scientists say it's too soon for that anyway. Marine ecologist John Day from Louisiana State University is working with Ohio State researchers this year to study the issue further.

John Day: We know this solution will work in general. What we're talking about here is, how do we apply these solutions to a variety of different landscapes? That's where the uncertainty is. And that's where we need to do research.

But while research continues, government agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers are already backing the project. And scientists like OSU's Bill Mitsch say restoring Midwest wetlands to reduce Gulf dead zones will improve water quality in Ohio as well. He believes the same techniques applied to the Lake Erie watershed could reduce dead zones there - and provide cleaner drinking water for millions of local residents. In Columbus, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3.