Although reducing fertilizer use is the most cost effective method of ameliorating hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, the reductions necessary are too difficult and expensive to implement; the massive agribusiness establishment of wheat, soy, and especially corn is not easily confronted. So conservation and restoration of wetlands, or creation of any other form of buffer zone, is one of the better alternatives.
Buffer zones can filter between 50 and 90 percent of nitrogen and phosphorous from runoff; riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, and contour grass strips are practices eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program that also prevent nutrient runoff. The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, is another result of the 1985 farm bill that created Swampbuster: it essentially pays farmers to put parts of their land aside for increments of ten or fifteen years; for example, highly erodible soil can be left fallow but retain “productivity” by bringing farmers CRP payments. Increasing CRP payments for practices that are known to mitigate nutrient runoff will incentivize the creation of buffer zones; this money could come from carefully reduced subsidies to direct corn, wheat, and soy production.
I’ve written about payments for ecosystem services previously. Why not apply the same practice to farming in the Mississippi River Basin? A program similar to that of Vittel with dairy farmers in France, or of New York City with residents of the Catskills? Those with vested interests in the Gulf of Mexico, such as fishing companies, wildlife tour operators, and environmental groups may be willing to pay farmers to establish buffer zones.
But redesigning or reallocating subsidies, reinforcing cross-compliance programs like Swampbuster, and establishing payments for ecosystem services all share the drawback of relying on voluntary action. If farmers want to receive any of these payments, they comply with basic requirements—often they can get away with doing even less, given unreliable monitoring techniques. One way to combat unreliable monitoring is making payments according to results (i.e. targeted levels of nitrate nitrogen concentration in runoff). But there may not be enough money to sustain it (especially from those interests in the Gulf that I mentioned). If legislators are willing to confront powerful special interest groups, then stronger, although perhaps more expensive, actions such as legally required fertilizer caps or mandated proportions of buffer zone-to-agricultural land might be taken, ultimately yielding greater positive effects on the Gulf’s hypoxic zone.
Compared with this heavy-handed and presumably unpopular approach, enhancing payments for voluntary wetland creation and restoration seems a more feasible effort.
Buffers and Vegetative Filter Strip Symposia – Dosskey 2001
Nassauer et al. 2007 – Chapter 3