Written by Becca Habegger, Multimedia Journalist - bio | email
DUBUQUE COUNTY (KWWL) -
What Iowans put on their yards and farm fields can have a direct and deadly impact on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.
A Des Moines Register article this weekend examined Iowa's role in a national task force aimed at reducing the Gulf's Dead Zone.
As every farmer knows, nitrogen and phosphorus are two key ingredients in crop growth.
"It's an essential," Dubuque County farmer Jeff Pape said. "It's nothing you can go without to grow the crop."
Pape farms 600 acres of corn and soybeans outside Dyersville. He's the Dubuque County Farm Bureau's vice president and acts as a watershed advisor, which means he's familiar with the issue of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.
"Yes, there is potential for any of these to get into tile water and eventually into streams," Pape said, but added, "With today's process of applying, most of these have inhibitors on them to help maintain and lock them into the soil so they don't have runoff."
He said farmers know it benefits everybody -- including themselves -- to keep the runoff to a minimum.
"We don't want the chemicals to leave our farm and get into a water source for anybody or a stream," Pape said, "and the second thing is the expense of these chemicals: we can't afford to have them leaving the land either."
Still, however, nitrogen and phosphorus are contributing to an oxygen-depleted "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
At Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, an exhibit explains the process.
"When we use nitrogen and phosphates on our farms or on our golf courses or even on our lawns here in Iowa, that can run off into the Mississippi River," the museum's spokesperson and director of marketing John Sutter said. "Of course, the Mississippi River ends in the Gulf of Mexico, and when you have that excess nutrient in the water, it creates an algae bloom in the golf of Mexico, and when that algae dies, you get bacteria decomposing that algae, and it sucks all the oxygen out of the water."
The Dead Zone is a 6,767 square mile area in which marine life cannot survive. That's roughly the size of New Jersey.
Fixing it has neither a fast nor simple solution.
"The Mississippi River's watershed is 32 of our 50 states and three Canadian provinces, so it's not just the people who live directly next to the Mississippi River, but anywhere between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, and all that water drains into the Gulf of Mexico," Sutter said.
"It's something we can't do overnight," Pape said.
He said since the US task force on mitigating the dead zone was formed 15 years ago, regulations and improved farming practices have decreased the amount of runoff. Still, there is more than 6,500 square miles to go before the Gulf is back at full health.
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