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Last modified: Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Watershed pollutants from Midwestern farms contribute to "dead zone" in Gulf of Mexico, IU

July 5, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Winter floods and spring downpours are washing large amounts of nutrients off Midwestern farms and into streams feeding the Mississippi River, according to new research led by Todd Royer, an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. These nutrients ultimately end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where they contribute to its oxygen-starved "dead zone."

The new study, "Timing of Riverine Export of Nitrate and Phosphorus from Agricultural Watersheds in Illinois: Implications for Reducing Nutrient Loading to the Mississippi River," is featured in the current issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

Royer's research focuses on three Illinois watersheds and found that more than 97 percent of the year's total runoff of dissolved nitrogen and more than 98 percent of the year's dissolved phosphorus runoff occurs when stream flow is greater than the yearly median. These high flows occur mainly from January through June, according to data from more than 2000 water samples collected from October 1993 through September 2005.

The geographic size of the study and the large number of data points make this work a valuable addition to a growing body of research showing that nutrient releases peak during high river flow.

The work by Royer and his colleagues validates other research showing that water flow at the mouth of the Mississippi in May is the best predictor of the size of the Gulf's dead zone. The mass of nutrients, especially nitrogen, dumped in the Gulf in May feeds the growth of excess algae that die, sink to the bottom and ultimately absorb oxygen in late summer.

Most of these nutrients originate in upper Midwestern farms, particularly those with underground tile drainage systems, says Royer, who adds that roughly 20 million hectares of farmland in the Mississippi River basin are drained by tile systems. Practices such as fertilizing bare fields in the fall before the next summer's plants have a chance to absorb the nutrients, leave nitrogen and phosphorus free to be washed off fields during winter and spring rains and floods, he says.

Currently, the nutrient-laden floods that take place outside the growing season receive little regulatory scrutiny. The federal Total Maximum Daily Load program, which determines the amount of pollution that can be tolerated by healthy water bodies, tends to focus on summers when excess algae can foul local streams, Royer says. Because Midwest summers tend to be relatively dry, that is the time of year when the smallest amount of nutrients run off from farms into the Mississippi.

The federal Hypoxia Action Plan sets a goal of reducing nitrogen loads in the Mississippi River by 30 percent by 2015. Reducing nitrogen loads in streams by 25 percent during periods of high flow could cut total annual export of nitrogen by nearly 21 percent, Royer estimates. This could be accomplished by eliminating fall fertilization and planting cover crops, he says.

About SPEA:

The IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, located on eight campuses, is committed to teaching, research and service in areas such as public and nonprofit management, public policy, environmental science, criminal justice, arts administration and health administration. The school maintains continuing relationships with a large number of public agencies at all levels of government; public and private hospitals and health organizations; and nonprofit organizations and corporations in the private sector. SPEA has earned national distinction for innovative educational programs that combine administrative, social, economic, financial and environmental disciplines.