Few programs have seen widespread success in tackling water quality problems in the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico, but an emerging initiative could present a way forward. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) in 2009. New WRI research finds that with some specific improvements, the MRBI’s new approach could play a key role in improving the nation’s inland and coastal water quality.
Blog Posts: eutrophication
The Gulf of Mexico has the largest dead zone in the United States and the second-largest in the world. Dead zones form when excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous wash into waterways and spur algal blooms, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish, shrimp, and other marine life. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone can range between an astounding 3,000 and 8,000 square miles. At its largest, it’s about the size of Massachusetts.
Reducing this growing dead zone problem is a huge scientific, technical, economic, and political challenge. It’s a conundrum that agricultural and environmental experts from across the United States will deliberate this week at the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.
One new approach they’ll discuss is voluntary nutrient trading. According to a new study conducted by WRI staff for the EPA, this strategy could be used in the Mississippi River Basin to cost-effectively reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and shrink the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
- LEARN MORE: Download the full study on the economic feasibility of nutrient trading in the Mississippi River Basin.
This post was co-authored with Bob Diaz, a WRI partner and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
This year’s extreme weather events—a warm winter, even warmer summer, and a drought that covered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States—has certainly caused its fair share of damages. But despite the crop failures, water shortages, and heat waves, extreme weather created at least one benefit: smaller dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
On a normal year, rain washes pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous from farms and urban areas into the two bodies of water, fueling algae growth. When this algae dies, it consumes oxygen and creates hypoxic areas, or “dead zones,” which can kill fish and other marine life. Less rain this year meant fewer pollutants making their way into the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The Chesapeake Bay’s summer dead zone was the smallest since record-keeping began in 1985, and the Gulf of Mexico’s covered one of the smallest areas on record.
Agricultural production often comes at the expense of water quality. As my colleague, Mindy Selman, noted in a recent blog post, “Agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.”
But food security shouldn’t come at the expense of water quality—and in fact, it doesn’t have to. This is a topic I’m discussing at a World Water Week side event, “Securing Water Quality While Providing Food Security: The Nutrient Question.” Through the use of effective tools and strategies, we have the power to uphold water quality while still feeding a population that’s expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.
Our water systems are currently being threatened by the crops we grow and food we produce. In many countries, agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.
WRI’s water quality team will be in Stockholm next week to discuss this very topic at a side event entitled, “Securing Water Quality While Providing Food Security: The Nutrient Question,” an event co-organized by Water Environment Federation and Environmental Defense Fund. This session, which takes place on August 29th, will build on the work WRI’s water quality team has done with its partner, Dr. Bob Diaz at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to evaluate the scale and scope of global nutrient-related water quality challenges, including how these issues are driven by agriculture.