Guest column: Iowa must take responsibility for the Dead Zone

September 23, 2009

Farm and lawn fertilizer, livestock manure, human sewage and other sources from Iowa and 30 other states in the Mississippi River Basin are flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and creating havoc with marine life and a multimillion-dollar fishing industry. Federal and state agencies have been seeking solutions since 1997, as the Gulf Dead Zone – a large area of low oxygen – continues to appear each summer following spring rains that wash nitrogen and phosphorus pollution down the Mississippi River to the Gulf.

Imagine there was a toxic cloud the size of New Jersey that hovered over Iowa every summer and destroyed our agricultural crops. This would certainly be considered a state and national emergency. Everyone in Iowa would demand that those responsible take action. The Dead Zone is like this, except it is off the coast of Louisiana instead of over land, and it affects the fishing industry instead of farmers – but there has been no public outcry demanding action.

Louisiana is the state with the largest stake in reducing the Dead Zone because of the impact to its fishing industry and the waters of the Gulf. Iowa has a stake also as one of the nine states in the Mississippi River Basin contributing more that 75 percent of the pollution causing the Dead Zone. Iowa has a responsibility and opportunity this week to make a genuine commitment to reducing our share of the pollution. 
The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force will be meeting in Des Moines on Sept. 23-24. The task force, consisting of five federal agencies and 10 state agencies, was brought together in 1997 to develop and implement an action plan to reduce the Dead Zone. Since the beginnings of this task force, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Gulf Restoration Network have monitored its progress (or lack thereof), and advocated for strong actions to reduce the Dead Zone’s size.

More recently, our organizations have joined forces with other environmental groups as part of the Mississippi River Collaborative, a network of state, regional and national groups working to improve water quality in the states that border the Mississippi River and downstream in the Gulf of Mexico. 
Because of the lack of concrete action to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf, the collaborative is calling on federal agencies to take a leadership role to implement solutions that will solve this pollution problem. The collaborative has asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop nitrogen and phosphorus criteria for the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River, and to use that criteria to set limits on the pollution load from watersheds in states upriver to reduce the Dead Zone. We have also called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to target more farm conservation funding to help states control farm runoff pollution sources that are contributing the majority of the pollution causing the Dead Zone.

Federal and state governments, including Iowa, have shown a discouraging lack of leadership over the past 13 years. We are encouraged by recent statements from EPA and USDA pledging a renewed commitment from the federal agencies to take the essential steps needed to stem Dead Zone pollution. The state of Iowa has also brought forward new strategies to reduce nitrogen pollution from tile-drained cropland by strategically placing new treatment wetlands on the landscape to filter out this pollution.

At the meeting this week, we will urge the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force to break with the past and take an aggressive course of action that will finally shrink the Dead Zone in the Gulf and improve water quality in Iowa and all the states that drain to the Mississippi River.

Find out about meeting

To learn more about the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Des Moines, today and Thursday, Sept. 23-24, go to: The public session of the task force meeting will be held Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Embassy Suites on the River in Des Moines.