The Dead Zone is area in the Gulf of Mexico where life cannot exist because there is too little oxygen in the water. The Dead Zone is shown on the map to the left in red.
Annually, the Mississippi River collects roughly ten thousand pounds of fertilizer and raw sewage pollution from 31 states and some of Canada. When spring and summer rains come down, they wash the excessive nutrients in fertilizers and sewage downstream and out into the Gulf. For a few months every year, the nitrogen- and phosphorus-loaded water feeds massive algal blooms that consume the oxygen available in the water.
Water lacking oxygen lacks life, which is why this area is called the “Dead Zone”. The oxygen-depleted waters force fish and wildlife to leave, while bottom–dwellers like Gulf shrimp often cannot escape the Dead Zone and die. Scientists call this oxygen-depleted condition hypoxia and it is getting worse in the Gulf. Sometimes the Dead Zone grows larger than the state of Connecticut, nearly 5,800 square miles.
What is the solution?
Reducing pollution from the Mississippi River is essential to restoring the Gulf. By limiting fertilizer use on farms, adopting sustainable farming practices and utilizing cover crops, we can decrease the amount of excess nutrients flowing to the Gulf. Improving our “green infrastructure” to capture and filter runoff in wetlands will clean the River and shrink the Dead Zone. Green infrastructure, including natural floodplains, meanders and other features, slow the volume and intensity of floods and help capture sediments and nitrates, reducing the amount that reaches the Gulf.
We must also follow the Farm Bill, which is the single most important piece of legislation impacting food, farms and conservation programs that help farmers improve soil and water health. It is important that farmers who receive taxpayer-funded crop insurance subsides refrain from draining wetlands and adhere to a conservation plan when farming highly-erodible land. We must hold the government, agriculture and each other accountable to be sure tax dollars are used wisely.
Take Action as a River Citizen by reducing personal fertilizer and pesticide use. The Mississippi River also needs you to vote for local and national decision makers who support River access, protection and restoration.