The continuing Deepwater Horizon oil spill is big news right now - as it should be. This major oil spill has caused an incredible environmental and social catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in the Mississippi Delta area. This area has already been suffering a great deal of problems due to a variety of issues ranging from pollution to wetland loss and effects associated with Hurricane Katrina. A lot of people want to help out, and there are a few ways you can do that right from Pittsburgh (or anywhere else in the Mississippi River watershed ).
It is true that you can help with our general dependance on oil by reducing your personal consumption (driving less, using less manufactured goods, eating more sustainable, local food). This will help reduce the chance of future oil spills by moving us towards using other fuels. It won't help with the current oil spill, though.
I mentioned earlier that there are a lot of problems in the Gulf happening at once. These of course combine to make the problems associated with the oil spill much worse. One of the long-term problems in the gulf is the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. The "dead zone" is exactly what it sounds like - an area in the Gulf where there is little or no marine life present. The basic cause of the dead zone is the high amount of nutrients like nitrogen and potassium that enter the Gulf from the Mississippi River. These elements largely come from synthetic fertilizers in the watershed, but also enter the river as animal and human waste.
Wait, fertilizer is good, right? It makes plants grow! Plants are good! Right??? Well, there aren't a lot of plants in the ocean, but there IS a lot of algae. Fertilizer that enters the ocean can lead to explosions in algae growth. The algae then dies, and decays. This process uses up the oxygen in the water, in a process called 'eutrophication'. Once all the oxygen is gone, fish and other animals in this part of the ocean can not survive. At this point, sea life is certainly being more heavily impacted by the oil spill than the dead zone, but in a time of ecological crisis, it is definitely causing additional harm to create an area in the Gulf, seasonally as big as New Jersey, where no sea creatures can survive!
So where do YOU come in? If you live in Pittsburgh, or anywhere in a watershed that drains into the Gulf, there are lots of things you can do to help reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Gulf. Since I am mentioning this in my blog about rain gardens and rainwater barrels, you may not be surprised to read that installing these features in your yard can help decrease 'fertilizer pollution' runoff, by decreasing the amount of sewage that is dumped into rivers during storms. You can also stop fertilizing your lawn. Synthetic fertilizers like the ones used on lawns readily dissolve during rainstorms and are washed into rivers. One option is to use a mulching lawnmower to naturally fertilize your lawn. An even better option is to get rid of your lawn altogether! Instead, try some native plants that do not need fertilizer, or plant a vegetable garden and fertilize using compost.
Don't let your lawn be a dead end - for the Gulf!
Finally, support larger-scale wetland and stream restoration projects in your community, such as the one I mentioned last week. Streams and wetlands do a great job of using nitrogen and phosphorus before they enter rivers, and also provide other values, such as areas for recreation and wildlife habitat.
Of course, if you live somewhere other than the Mississippi River watershed, doing these things will also help out the ocean, which needs all the help it can get however you look at it.