Energy & Environment

Oceans Ominous

Most days after work, I walk my old dog on the banks of the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone's still running cold and swift, maybe 40 yards...
by | March 31, 2007

Most days after work, I walk my old dog on the banks of the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone's still running cold and swift, maybe 40 yards wide, where it bursts onto the Great Plains from its headwaters 10,000 feet high at the Continental Divide. In time, that water will flow 3,500 miles, meandering down the Missouri River past Kansas City to join the Mississippi as it rolls all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and on into the ocean.

And so, eventually, could residues that humans release into the Yellowstone. Contaminants also are cascading from the Ohio River's headwaters, not that far from my hometown in upstate New York, to join the Mississippi's southward surge to the sea. Big Midwestern and Southern cities, Corn Belt farms and animal feedlots in 31 interior states and two Canadian provinces contribute sewage, livestock wastes, fertilizers and other pollutants draining down the Mississippi's 1.2 million-square-mile watershed. Those contaminants can be damaging enough to the streams into which they are first discharged. It's now evident that serious cumulative consequences also occur when they reach the oceans beyond the nation's coastlines.

Just off the Mississippi's mouth, for instance, accumulating nitrogen-rich nutrients have created a gulf "dead zone" that some summers has been larger than New Jersey. This could happen in the ocean as well. Even in the North American heartland, says former Kansas Governor Mike Hayden, "what we do on land has ultimate manifestations in the seas."

Global warming in the earth's atmosphere is finally claiming the political center stage in the U.S. Capitol, statehouses and the mass media. But the earth's oceans are in trouble, too. Just as with climate change, that damage can be reversed only if our governments clamp down on the aggregate pollution that communities set loose in an overloaded environment.

Hayden, a biologist and fisherman who now runs the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, served on a Pew Oceans Commission that in 2003 called on governments to overhaul fragmented laws and regulations to establish "an ethic of stewardship and responsibility toward the ocean and its inhabitants." The panel recommended that the U.S. government create a comprehensive federal oceans policy to address myriad marine threats. However, even the most focused federal agencies could never repair the oceans on their own. State and local governments must also band together to improve the watersheds they share.

For years, coastal states and communities have been working together with federal agencies trying to salvage the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and Florida's embattled Everglades. Governors in the three Pacific Coast states and the five states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico now have signed pacts for protecting the ocean waters they share. The Pew report makes clear that governments must be flexible enough to experiment with new mechanisms, including regional ocean-ecosystem councils. They'll also need to work across political lines, watershed-by-watershed, to deal with the polluted non-point runoff from suburban rooftops, shopping mall parking lots, heavily fertilized golf courses and millions of acres of cropland.

The Gulf of Mexico's lifeless zone illustrates how extensive the problem is. The Mississippi River's heavy nutrient load sets off complex biological changes that deplete subsurface oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia, smothering most marine life in deeper water layers. Scientists say Midwestern farms contribute most to the problem through nitrogen from fertilizers that rainfall carries into the Mississippi's tributaries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is funding state agency and university research on reducing nutrient runoff from farms into Iowa's Des Moines River and Illinois' Sangamon River, as well as the Fourche Creek watershed that drains most of Little Rock, Arkansas. Unless it's done carefully, the present rush to cut global-warming emissions through all-out agricultural biofuel production risks creating even more runoff that damages ocean waters.

As far north as Great Falls, Montana, or Pittsburgh, urban and rural officials should think about what pollutants they're sending downstream. Forty-six percent of Americans live close to the coastlines, but "in a sense, we all live in a coastal watershed since all rivers drain eventually to the sea," the Pew report points out. Montana is the only state that drains to three seas: south to the Gulf, west to the Pacific, and also north to the Arctic Ocean. Even up here near the crown of the continent, we who live upstream should be aware that our own pollution is winding up in distant ocean waters.

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