116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” an expanse of low-oxygen waters that is a threat to aquatic life the livelihoods of gulf shrimpers and fishing operators, stretches 3,275 square miles this summer. That’s less than what scientists predicted, but that’s no reason for celebration.
The smaller size is likely attributed to lower water flow due to drought conditions in parts of the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin, the third largest in the world. The dead zone is not shrinking due to the success of largely voluntary measures to cut the amount of nitrates and phosphorus running from our cropland. It’s those nutrients that feed large algae blooms that spawn the dead zone.
In fact, the current dead zone is much larger than a goal set by the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force to shrink the low-oxygen area to 1,930 square miles by 2035. Iowa is one of 12 states who joined the task force with the goal of slashing the flow of agricultural pollutants. And yet, the dead zone’s five-year average size is 4,280 square miles.
Iowa is a major contributor to the hypoxia zone. A 2018 University of Iowa study found that Iowa’s average nitrate contribution to the Mississippi-Atchafalaya Basin between 1999 and 2016 was 29 percent. That’s disproportionate to the amount of water flowing into the basin from the state, meaning the hefty contribution can’t be blamed on weather.
That’s a lot of numbers. But the bottom line is that despite Iowa politicians’ affinity for a strictly voluntary approach, volunteerism isn’t cleaning up our waterways in any meaningful way. And our lack of political will is making it tougher to make a living harvesting seafood from the gulf. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the dead zone causes $2.4 billion worth of damage annually to the gulf’s marine habitat. Robbing shrimpers to boost the profits of corn growers is destructive economic and environmental policy.
The federal government has little power to affect the situation, because most agricultural activities aren’t regulated by the Clean Water Act. So it’s up the states, and Iowa’s track record for taking its water quality problems seriously is abysmal. Yes, some landowners and farmers are taking positive steps and some good watershed-level efforts are happening. But it’s simply not enough to move the needle, and the state is doing little to measure whether these scattered projects are cleaning up water.
Candidates in both parties are reluctant to call for what’s needed, state laws aimed at curtailing pollution, for fear of offending agricultural interests. That’s got to change, because Iowa’s natural resources belong to us all, not one powerful industry willing to jeopardize them for profit. It’s time the Statehouse cease being a dead zone when it comes to protecting Iowa’s and the nation’s environment.
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