New Orleans, LA— Every year nitrogen and phosphorous pollution gets dumped into the Mississippi River by 31 states and parts of Canada, creating an economically and ecologically disastrous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. New measurements from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-supported scientists report this year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to be 5,840 square miles, more than double the goal set in 2001 by the Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force of 1,900 square miles.
“It’s long past time for us to get serious about curbing the dead zone pollution,” said Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Prairie River Network. “Cities are rising to the challenge of tighter controls on sewage treatment plant discharges because the Clean Water Act forced them to. Now we need leadership from Congress to tackle tough national policies to reduce pollution from agriculture.”
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff, byproducts of sewage treatment and fossil fuel combustion create dead zones, also known as hypoxia, an area with low oxygen concentrations. Just as nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers promote crop growth, the excess nutrients feed algae blooms. After the algae die, the bacteria decomposing them deplete oxygen levels. The lack of oxygen threatens aquatic life, kills organisms unable to leave the area and endangers the fishing industry. In 2002, the dead zone reached 8,481square miles, the largest dead zone on record.
The total annual load of excess nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico now exceeds 1.5 million metric tons. While no one entity is responsible for the health and vitality of the Mississippi River, a critical path to reduce the Gulf’s dead zone is through the Farm Bill. Past Farm Bills have supported voluntary conservation practices, such as the use of cover crops and no till farming, to limit erosion and help the nation’s farmers prevent excess nitrogen and phosphorus from entering waterways.
The Farm Bill passed in the Senate includes a measure linking subsidies for crop insurance to conservation compliance. The benefits to doing this are multiple, said Matt Rota, Director of Science and Water Policy at the Gulf Restoration Network. “Conservation compliance, included in the current Senate Farm Bill, would help reduce the pollution that causes the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as prevent soil erosion, cut federal expenditures and help keep wetland and grassland ecosystems healthy.”
There is extensive and diverse support for conservation compliance, including within the agricultural community. “Polling data shows the vast majority of farmers agree with establishing minimum conservation requirements to be eligible for farm bill subsidies,” said Ryan Stockwell, Agricultural Manager for the National Wildlife Federations. “They have the widespread support of conservation, commodity, and farm groups.”
The Mississippi River Network (MRN), founded in 2005, focuses collaborative energy on raising public awareness of River issues and giving the River a unified voice. MRN is a coalition dedicated to protecting the Mississippi River for the well being of the land, water and people of America’s largest watershed. The Mississippi River Network is managed by Biodiversity Project and supported by McKnight Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Visit 1mississippi.org for more information.