Fertilizers pollute ground, surface waters

The Freshwater Society blog publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

Report analyzes pollution from fertilizers
The Environmental Working Group has issued a 54-page report on the pollution of ground and surface waters caused by nitrogen and phosphorus, two major farm fertilizers.

The report, “Troubled Waters: Farm Pollution Threatens Drinking Water,” looked at the problem in four Midwest corn belt states – Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Both nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to the oxygen-deprived “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen also has a health risk for humans, especially for infants, when it leaches into drinking water drawn from shallow wells. Phosphorus in lakes feeds algae blooms that can be a deterrent to recreation and sometimes a health threat.

The report quotes a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate that removing nitrate from drinking water costs nearly $5 billion a year. According to the report, nitrate levels in Minnesota streams are eight times natural background levels, and phosphorus levels are five times background levels.

The also report quotes data from a Minnesota Department of Agriculture voluntary testing program that evaluated water from 9,700 wells between 1995 and 1998. In those tests, 9 percent of drilled wells had nitrate in excess of the human health standard, 16 percent of sandpoint wells had nitrate that exceeded the health standard, and 40 percent of the relatively few dug wells that were tested had nitrates in excess of the standard. A Minnesota Health Department survey of randomly selected private wells in the 1990s found about 6 percent had nitrate levels that exceeded the health standard.

Read the Environmental Working Group report. Read a Star Tribune article about the report. Read a Des Moines Register article on it. Read an agriculture.com article on it.  View the  Minnesota Department of Agriculture web page reporting data on well contamination and offering advice on water testing for owners of private wells.

View video of Craig A. Cox, one of the authors of the Environmental Working Group report, delivering a February 2011 lecture, sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. Cox’s lecture was titled “Taking the Pollution out of Agricultural Production.”

Research: Migrating loons visit L. Michigan
At least six of the 29 loons that have had radio and satellite telemetry devices placed in them by researchers have returned to their breeding lakes in Minnesota as of April 11, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

One of the loons, known as “M2,” returned to Big Mantrap Lake in northern Minnesota March 29.

“This is a very exciting time in science exploration,” said Carrol Henderson, supervisor of the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program. “We have been able to learn more about our fabulous state bird than we have ever known before.”

During the last two years, the loons were equipped with satellite transmitters in an effort to study their migratory movements and foraging patterns while migrating.

Most of the loons that are part of this research project left Minnesota in October and spent about a month on Lake Michigan before departing for the Gulf of Mexico in early December.
–DNR News Release

Rules tightened on antibiotics for livestock 
Farmers and ranchers will for the first time be required to get a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals, federal food regulators announced. Officials hope the move will slow the indiscriminate use of the drugs, which has made them increasingly ineffective in humans.

The Food and Drug Administration has been taking small steps to try to curb the use of antibiotics on farms, but federal officials said that requiring prescriptions would lead to meaningful reductions in the agricultural use of antibiotics, which are given to promote animal growth. The drug resistance that has developed from that practice has been a growing problem for years and has rendered a number of antibiotics used in humans less and less effective, with deadly consequences.

Initially, the F.D.A. is asking drug makers to voluntarily change their labels to require a prescription; federal officials said that drug makers had largely agreed to the change.
–The New York Times

GAO: U.S. could save $1 billion on crop insurance 
The federal government could save about $1 billion a year by reducing the subsidies it pays to large farmers to cover much of the cost of their crop insurance, according to a report by Congressional auditors.

The report raised the prospect of the government’s capping the amount that farmers receive at $40,000 a year, much as the government caps payments in other farm programs. Any move to limit the subsidy, however, is likely to be opposed by rural lawmakers, who say the program provides a safety net for agriculture.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, was requested by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, as part of his efforts to cut government spending. Under the federal crop insurance program, farmers can buy insurance policies that cover poor yields, declines in prices or both. The insurance is obtained through private companies, but the federal government pays about 62 percent of the premiums, plus administrative expenses.
–The New York Times

Maps spur interest in protecting Le Sueur River 
A “map party” may not sound like a rousing way to kick off the formation of a citizen-led movement to improve the Le Sueur River.

But as people filed into the Pemberton Community Center for an informal open house, they eagerly pored over a variety of maps of the area — historic maps from the early 1900s to high-tech maps showing crisp aerial views and maps created with cutting-edge imaging showing erosion of bluffs over time.

The event was the first step in trying to get residents in the watershed to focus on a river that is one of the biggest contributors of sediment into the Minnesota River — sediment that is rapidly filling in Lake Pepin on the Mississippi and leading to growing calls for action.

Patrick Moore, the leader of Clean Up the River Environment or CURE, said bringing together the seemingly endless number of maps created by state and federal agencies grew out of a comment by Blue Earth County’s land use planner, Julie Conrad.
–The Mankato Free Press

Zebra mussel shells clog Lake Winnebago 
For some area residents on the lakeshore, it’s like something out of a bad horror movie. No matter what they try, the bogeyman keeps regenerating itself.

In this case, the monster is a barrier of zebra mussel shells that pile up and stretch across an inlet to Lake Winnebago on the lakeshore property of the Jesuit Retreat House in the Town of Black Wolf.

Chuck Linde, facilities manager for the retreat house, estimates there is about 12 dump trucks’ worth of mussels in the lake inlet, next to an island just off the shore. “It’s created a landmass,” Linde said. “It bridges the gap between the island and our property.” –The Oshkosh Northwestern