The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is a big problem and the problem may the biggest on record this year as a result of the wet spring.  

As can be expected, heavier-than-normal rains lead to heavier-than-normal fertilizer runoff from fields, yards, golf courses, etc, into Midwestern rivers, which eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.  Algae feasts on the nitrogen from the fertilizer creating large algae blooms which die off and are decomposed by bacteria.  The bacteria use oxygen in the water decomposing the algae creating a large zone of oxygen-less water.  Fish, including commercialized shellfish, die off or flee the area; leaving fisheries and fishermen with empty nets.  As illustrated below by Dan Swenson.     

Dead Zone Formation

There are a lot of causes for the dead zone, but many point their fingers at Midwestern agricultural practices as the main source of the nutrients entering the Gulf of Mexico.  While acknowledging the problem, the nation’s crop production relies upon fertilizers applied in those Midwestern states surrounding the Mississippi River and its tributaries.   

In response, Iowa created the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to begin addressing the problems set out in the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan.  The Strategy’s outline is

A pragmatic approach for reducing nutrient loads discharged from the state’s largest wastewater treatment plants and major industries, in combination with targeted conservation practices to reduce loads from nonpoint sources such as farm fields.

Those directly affected by the dead zone will argue the voluntary conservation measures outlined in the Strategy do not go far enough and complain Midwestern farmers are unable to police themselves.  From a legal perspective, Midwestern farmers must realize that government regulations are probably around the corner if voluntary conservation practices do not work. 

In any event, the Strategy is Iowa’s first step onto the high wire across the competing interests of the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. crop production.   

A chart outlining the recommended conservation practices and how such practices may affect crop yields can be found at: Nutrient Reduction Strategy