Protecting the Mississippi Delta

Growing Blue

Thanks to the Mississippi River-Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force

The Mississippi River, which runs from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the largest rivers in North America. But as this large river flows through 10 states, it has ample opportunity to pick up a variety of pollutants along the way, as well as nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that are largely used in the agricultural sector.

As a result, when the Mississippi River discharges into the Gulf of Mexico, nutrient overloading and algal blooms lead to eutrophication, which is known to reduce biodiversity. According to the National Park Service, an area at the mouth of the Mississippi 5,000 to 8,000 square miles has consequently been designated a “dead zone.” Few living organisms can survive in this oxygen-deprived area.

When it comes to the fact that the Gulf of Mexico is a major source area for the seafood industry, the issue becomes even more charged. The Gulf supplies large portions of U.S. harvested shrimp, harvested oysters and commercial fish. Consequently, if the hypoxic zone continues or worsens, fishermen and coastal state economies will be greatly impacted.

Faced with this problem, the Mississippi River-Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was created in 1997 to reduce the size, severity and duration of the dead zone’s impact. This collaboration between five federal agencies and 10 state agencies works to improve watersheds and restore habitats in the Mississippi.

The task force is already making progress. For example, Illinois corn producers who were offered paid incentives have adjusted their application of certain agricultural chemicals, reducing nitrogen application by 10,000 pounds and phosphorus application by 140,000 pounds. They induced Indiana to implement a system of nutrient management, no-till, crop rotation, and cover crop practices, leading farmers to reduce nitrate concentrations in tile drainage water from over 30 milligrams per liter to fewer than 10 milligrams per liter.

Another initiative, the GENERATIONS Program, is a groundbreaking partnership between the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and professional farmers. It pairs the next generation of agricultural professionals with current corn producers to collect cornstalk samples and test them for nitrate content in Missouri’s Little River Ditches Basin. According to David Dunn Supervisor at the Delta Research Center in the Soil Testing Laboratory, “Cornstalk nitrate testing provides the producer with data to make sound decisions about next season’s nitrogen application. We decided to participate in this program because it benefits the farmer economically, allows young people to learn from those in the business, and helps conserve water quality. With the corn harvest close at hand, corn growers have no time to waste in signing up.”

Proactive environmental efforts such as these initiatives go a long way toward enhancing the health of the Mississippi – an effort with a direct economic impact as well. Similar programs could be applied elsewhere to help reduce the impact of agriculture on water quality.

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