It’s the season to measure the size of the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Each summer, scientists examine coastal waters off Louisiana to see how large of an area is without sea life because oxygen levels in the ocean are too low. Agricultural runoff and other nitrogen and phosphorous pollution flowing down the Mississippi River and its tributaries feed algal blooms that in turn suck up the oxygen in the water.
Every year, size comparisons are used to try to give us an idea of just how massive an area of the ocean is harmed. It’s usually described as being the size of a state like New Jersey, Connecticut or Rhode Island. This year, projections released earlier this summer estimated that the size of the Dead Zone could be from 5204 to 6823 square miles, as big as Connecticut. It’s a huge problem in any regard.
Since some of us here in the central part of the United States may not be overly familiar with Connecticut, such a size comparison may not mean much. So here’s where you can have bit of “fun” with Google Maps, Mapquest or another online mapping program. First a bit of math, 6823 square miles equates to a square that is roughly 83 miles on each side and totaling about 330 miles on all four sides. In one of the mapping programs, start with your city, pick another city in your state that about 83 miles away, a second another 83 miles away from that and a third 83 miles away from that, then return home. Don’t like computers, get in your car and drive 60 miles per hour in a huge circle for 5 to 6 hours nonstop and you’ll encircle the same space first hand. Or, you can look at some sample maps that we created for each state along the Mississippi River (see list below).
You’ll see that it covers a big swath of land in your state. Now imagine that nothing can grow in that massive area. All of the corn, soybeans and other crops, and all of the wildlife, are dead because of pollution from states upstream. Now, you might think it is poetic justice because agricultural runoff pollution from those types of row crops causes most of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Or, you might shake your fist at those bad neighbors upstream who can’t see the hypothetical problem that they’ve caused for you and others in your area. That’s what shrimpers and other folks who depend on making a living from the Gulf of Mexico have to deal with in a very real way each year when the Dead Zone reappears.
The nice thing about taking steps to reduce the size of the Dead Zone is that it’ll improve land and water in all of our communities from the headwaters of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’ll protect our drinking water supplies along the way. It’ll create healthier soil and reduce erosion so that our croplands remain productive for future generations. It’ll clean up our streams and rivers for us to enjoy.
States along the Mississippi River are supposed to be creating and implementing strategies to reduce the amount of agricultural runoff and other nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. Farming organizations and others concerned about this issue know what needs to be done to correct the problem. But it’s based on voluntary actions and progress has been painfully slow.
You can help. Let your Governor, Members of Congress, and State Legislators know that you care about reducing agricultural runoff pollution to improve water quality in your state’s lakes, rivers and streams and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico. Ask them if they’ve completed their nutrient loss reduction strategies and what they are doing to fix the problem. Over the coming months, we’ll provide our 1 Mississippi River Citizens and others with some easy ways to contact their elected decision makers about this issue. More to come. For now, take a look at the maps that we provided or create your own.
Mississippi River Network