Fixing Far Away Dead Zones Demands Our Action

Error message

  • Notice: Undefined index: taxonomy_term in similarterms_taxonomy_node_get_terms() (line 518 of /home/swiftcounty/www/www/sites/all/modules/similarterms/similarterms.module).
  • Notice: Undefined offset: 0 in similarterms_list() (line 221 of /home/swiftcounty/www/www/sites/all/modules/similarterms/similarterms.module).
  • Notice: Undefined offset: 1 in similarterms_list() (line 222 of /home/swiftcounty/www/www/sites/all/modules/similarterms/similarterms.module).
admin's picture

Distance has a way of absolving people of responsibility. If what we do, or don’t do, leads to problems far away it’s someone else’s problem to fix, clean up, or deal with the best they can. The drive for profits can make any concern a distant thought. Such is the case with the nutrient pollution of our waters, both locally and globally.

Two massive dead zones that have formed have one thing in common – they are on the receiving end of water systems that bring them nitrogen and phosphorous that runs off the agricultural landscape.

The “Mighty Mississippi” drains land from central Montana to western Pennsylvania. It takes in the majority of the Great Plains. It gathers waters from the Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee river watersheds. The Missouri and Arkansas rivers flow into it. Water running off the land from the heart of America’s agricultural land gathers in ditches, flows into streams that connect with small tributaries as they flow into larger rivers that merge with the Mississippi before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico not far past New Orleans.

The Red River Watershed isn’t nearly as large. Encompassing parts of northern Minnesota, North Dakota, the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, it feeds into Lake Winnipeg just north of the City of Winnipeg. At 9,465 square miles, you could fit Lake Mille Lacs into it 46 times. It’s bigger than the State of New Jersey.

What the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg have in common are dead zones.

Sometimes “far away” isn’t really that far – it’s not north of the border or south of New Orleans. It can be 200 feet beneath us or our favorite Minnesota lake. In southwestern Minnesota, a state Pollution Control Agency study indicated only three of 93 streams and lakes are “swimmable” because of nutrient pollution. In Adrian, Minnesota, the nitrate concentrations in the drinking water were so high that it was unsafe for babies. The MPCA found 72 percent of nitrates come from cropland.

“Mississippi River valley states have poured millions of dollars into restoring water and soil health in the river valley. The dead zone has only gotten bigger,” Minnesota Public Radio reporter Cody Nelson writes in a story with the headline, “How can the Midwest fix the ocean it has killed?”

The answer to the headline’s question is pretty straightforward – stop the runoff of phosphorous and nitrogen into the ditches, streams, and rivers that flow off the land and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorous and nitrogen are two of the essential fertilizers America farmers put on their ground to spur crop growth and health, creating bigger yields and more profitable land.

Those nutrients don’t always stay in the field. Rainfall, especially heavy and hard rainfalls, washes them into the waterways that lead south and north. “They also get into soil and erode into the watershed when fields drain or streams carve into their banks. Once in waterways, the nutrients become pollutants,” Nelson writes.

Through conservation practices that keep topsoil on their lands, Minnesota farmers have made progress in slowing erosion. At the same time, however, they have accelerated another practice that is proving damaging to lakes, streams, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg.

“They’re draining the landscape like crazy,” Patrick Belmont, a watershed researcher at Utah State University, told Nelson. “All the gains they’ve made in reducing soil erosion in the fields, they have entirely offset by increasing channel erosion.” With the highest return on investment in farmland coming from draining it, creating more tillable acres that produce good crops and good yields, farmers have been putting in as much tile as they can to get every acre of wet ground to shed its water quickly.

While we drain the land more quickly than ever, we are seeing more heavy rainfalls that wash phosphorous and nitrogen off the land, feeding it into ditches and streams. A warming earth allows the air to hold more moisture. That moisture then falls in far greater amounts than anything we’ve seen in the past. Rainfalls of 5, 6, 8 and 10 inches are becoming more common in Minnesota and other Midwest states. Those heavy rainfalls both wash away nutrients and cause erosion.

In the warm waters of the Gulf, those nutrients feed algae blooms that suck oxygen and life out of the water. The algae grows rapidly, spreading, killing more marine life. “Habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts,” Nelson quotes on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes the effect.

One of the fixes to reverse the growing size of the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg is taking land that drains into ditches and streams out of production. That isn’t going to happen. Too many farmers and investors have too much money tied up in earning a living off the land to shut down its revenue-generating potential. It could also take too much land out of the food production we need in America and that we ship overseas to feed other nations.

Minnesota is among the states that have been most effective in reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous running into its waters, but it has a long way to go. Governor Mark Dayton championed buffer strips in Minnesota, angering many in the farming community. Despite stiff opposition, he was able to get a law passed that established mandatory buffers in the state. Those vegetative buffers will slow runoff into our waters, filtering out nitrogen and phosphorous.

Education, cooperation, and laws that implement measures to protect our waters – streams, sloughs, groundwater, and lakes in Minnesota, and the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg – are required to begin to reverse the flow of nutrients that create dead zones.

One of Gov. Dayton’s legacies that future generations will thank him for is his focus on making our waters safer for drinking, swimming, and eating the fish we catch in them. People living along the Gulf of Mexico and the shores of Lake Winnipeg will also thank him.

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (2 votes)