Staff Editorials

Record dead zone underscores the need for action

An enhanced satellite image from NOAA shows how problems with water quality in the central United States -- including Iowa -- have a cumulative imapct in creating a
An enhanced satellite image from NOAA shows how problems with water quality in the central United States -- including Iowa -- have a cumulative imapct in creating a "dead zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico each summer. On the image of the continetnal United States, red does indicate large cities and green areas indicate farmland. Water pollution notably nitrates using in farming flow downstream where each summer they create a zone near the mouth of the Mississippi River that's so low in dissolved oxygen that it can't support marine life. (Photo from NOAA)

The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone off the coast of Louisiana and Texas is now the largest ever recorded by scientists. At 8,776 square miles, it’s as large as New Jersey.

It’s caused in large part by agricultural fertilizer runoff from cropland in Midwest states including Iowa, flowing down the Mississippi River. Pollutants enter the gulf and spawn a massive plume of algae growth. Bacteria feasting on the rapidly dying algae also devours available oxygen, dramatically affecting aquatic life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, estimates the dead zone costs the gulf’s tourism and seafood industries $82 million annually. Although the summer dead zones are temporary, the damage to some aquatic species may be permanent.

Iowa has vowed to do its part to reduce fertilizer runoff. But this record-breaking dead zone is a massive remind of our continued failure to make real progress on our promise. And our failures have consequences here in Iowa, where farm runoff dirties our waters, washes away our soil and intensifies costly flooding.

It’s not like we don’t know what has to be done. We have a state Nutrient Reduction Strategy that spells out a series of measures and best practices aimed at reducing Iowa’s fertilizer runoff by 40 percent. We know from research conducted by Iowa State University and other entities that increased use of cover crops, more diverse crop rotations and other sustainable farming practices can dramatically reduce nitrate runoff.

But our strategy is voluntary. There are no solid timelines or clear benchmarks for meeting our reduction goals. And although state and federal dollars have funded many worthwhile projects aimed at improving water quality, those resources have only scratched the surface of what’s needed to make a serious dent in our runoff problem.

We understand the political reality reflected by Iowa’s preference for carrots over sticks when it comes to agriculture, but a strategy without timelines and deadlines is really no strategy at all. And without adequate dollars to make meaningful progress, the strategy will fail.


Republicans who run the Statehouse have failed to come up with a response they can agree upon. Democrats also have yet to rally around a strategy. Candidates for governor are weighing in, but details are sketchy.

So the first zone to be addressed is the inaction zone beneath the Golden Dome. It must be replaced by leadership, collaboration and, at long last, a sense of urgency.

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