Efforts to Shrink Dead Zone in Gulf of Mexico Must Come From Minnesota and Iowa

Shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico             Photo: Spike Johnson for Grist

The “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico in 2019 extended nearly 6000 square miles across — it’s caused by fertilizers and other nutrients coming via the Mississippi River from as far as Minnesota and Iowa and it’s an even bigger threat to ocean biodiversity and Louisiana’s $2 billion seafood industry than oil and gas spills, and it’s even harder to fix.  A story by The Center for Public Integrity, Grist and The World documents how shrimpers in Louisiana are feeling the pain — the shrimp are smaller and less plump so the volume of fish caught keeps going down even though they have better equipment — improved radar, winches, and net technology.

Why This Matters:  Politicians are gathered in Iowa for this week’s caucuses and they are getting an earful about the devastating floods last year. Iowa farmers are not the only small “farmers” who took a beating from the floods — so did fishermen more than a thousand miles away in Louisiana, and they can scarcely afford the blow.  The swollen and sped up Mississippi River and its distributary, the Atchafalaya River, pumped 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico last May alone, which was well above long-term averages. Right now farmers are not required to limit their fertilizer runoff — and the Trump Administration has rolled back parts of the Clean Water Act that could have at least helped to cut it back. Shrimpers in Louisiana want to see strict federal limits on agricultural pollution entering the Mississippi, along with fines for non-compliance and even compensation to make them whole for historical damage to the industry.

What Is the Dead Zone?

The Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone” is a massive, oxygen-deprived swath of water concentrated off the coast of Louisiana and Texas, fed by polluted freshwater from states along the Mississippi River.  The River has been channelized to prevent flooding along its banks, but as a result, it is like a giant pipe carrying water with left-over nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer spread on farmland all across the Midwest — nearly 40% of the country. Those fertilizers and other chemicals encourage the growth of algae, which suck up oxygen and choke marine life and result in what’s known as “Hypoxia.”

What’s Iowa Doing About It?

Mike Naig, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture is actively urging farmers, fertilizer sellers, environmental scientists, and governments to work together to get farmers there equipment, technical assistance and funding for nutrient-reduction projects. Currently, he has 14 watershed demonstration projects across the state, which show how cover crops, bioreactors, and wetlands can reduce nutrient runoff on working farmland on a small scale. So far the state has 1 million acres of cover crops planted and 88 completed wetlands, with another 30 under development across Iowa.  “We all understand that we feed into the Gulf,” Naig told the Center.  “And shame on us if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to show that we can be effective.”

To Go Deeper: Read the entire article here.

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