In a new report, a committee of scientists and experts at the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences says swift government action is needed to reduce damaging fertilizer pollution in the Mississippi River basin and the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields and lawns not only pollutes local drinking water sources, but the accumulation of these chemicals downriver also plays a central role in the formation of the annual Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone."
Characterized by very low to non-existent levels of oxygen in the water, the Dead Zone is a black hole in a body of water where fish, shrimp and other sea life either flee or perish—without oxygen there can be no life. Corn Belt states along the upper Mississippi are the largest contributors to nitrate and phosphorus pollution in the River from fertilizer runoff, says the report.
Mississippi River Collaborative is asking for federal action
The Mississippi River Collaborative, a coalition of over 20 state and regional organizations, including the Iowa Environmental Council, promotes clean water policies across the Mississippi River basin. The collaborative is asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration to quickly heed the report's recommendations.
"When the nation's top science advisors make suggestions, we should listen," says Susan Heathcote, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. "These recommendations are common sense. Together, the coordinated restoration effort and specific limits on fertilizer pollution recommended in this report could mark a crucial first step in reclaiming the Mississippi River basin for future generations."
Among the recommendations in the NRC report are calls for a comprehensive and aggressive commitment to cleaning-up the entire Mississippi River basin, from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf Coast of the United States. Specific recommendations for the EPA include:
- Establishing a numeric limit for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants in the waters of the northern Gulf. This kind of limit would provide an endpoint that the EPA and Upper Mississippi River states can use as they set water quality standards for fertilizer pollution and processes for improving water quality upstream and throughout the basin.
- Developing a basin-wide action plan with partner federal agencies and the Mississippi River States to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution throughout the Mississippi River Basin and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. This action plan should be rigorous and include clear performance measures, milestones and deadlines.
"While federal governments tend to move at glacial speeds," says Matt Rota, Water Resources Program Director at Gulf Restoration Network, "I hope the EPA will take this report seriously and take quick action to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Mississippi River and the terrible Dead Zone that it causes."
The report was discussed at the Oct. 27, 2010 meeting of the NRC's Committee on Clean Water Act Implementation across the Mississippi River Basin. To view the report, visit: dels.nas.edu/Report/report/13029?utm_medium=etmail&utm_source=The%20National%20Academies&utm_campaign=Aetos-Report+v2. The Mississippi River Collaborative has worked since 2005 to strengthen efforts to reduce all types of pollution entering the Mississippi River. For more information on the Collaborative, visit: www.msrivercollab.org.