Federal Funds for FieldworkGAMBIER, Ohio (September 18, 2008) Over the next three summers, a Kenyon biology professor and several of her students will get their boots muddy tromping through Ohio wetlands and cornfields as they conduct research, the effects of which will ultimately be felt on the ocean floor a thousand miles away.
Kenyon associate professor Siobhan Fennessy and Christopher Craft, a professor at Indiana University, recently received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to quantify the effects of restored wetlands on improving surface water quality. The fieldwork will provide firsthand research experience for five to six Kenyon students.
"It's a great project for the students because they can be involved in a real research program that has real impact," says Fennessy, who is also co-director of the environmental studies program. "These watersheds in the Midwest corn belt are some of the biggest nitrogen exporters in the country, so you can address a relatively small geographic area and do a lot of good."
Runoff from Midwestern farms dumps nutrients, including nitrogen from fertilizer, into the streams and rivers leading into the Mississippi River. This runoff is partly to blame for a low-oxygen condition that creates a "dead zone" near coastal Louisiana and Texas by killing or driving off aquatic life on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. For years, the NRCS has paid farmers to take marginal farmland out of production and restore wetlands to mitigate the impact of agriculture on surface water quality. Wetlands naturally filter excess nutrients out of the surface water before it gets into streams and rivers.
The study led by Fennessy and Craft will determine which of those taxpayer-supported wetlands do the best job and will help the NRCS choose future locations that will provide the maximum positive impact. That's especially important today, with demand for ethanol driving up corn prices and making some farmers reluctant to convert even marginal cropland into wetlands. Rebuilding wetlands in the most effective way possible will mean that expanding cornfields in Ohio will take less of a toll on ocean life a thousand miles downstream.