A new report from the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, indicates that more than 1,700 water districts across the U.S. recorded nitrate levels that averaged 5 ppm or more in 2014-2015. The vast majority — 1,683 of the water districts — were rural systems serving no more than 25,000 people and generally located in farming areas where fertilizer and manure in cropland runoff can seep into the public water supply. Included in those rural districts were 118 systems that matched or exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limit of 10 ppm.
The Iowa Environmental Council is one of a series of environmental organizations that have joined together in a lawsuit against the EPA. The agency announced eight years ago that nitrogen and phosphorous were the primary agents in the creation of the dead zone.
Iowa is home to two rivers, the Cedar and Iowa rivers, voted as some of America’s most endangered rivers by the American Rivers organization. Over 180,000 people in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area depend upon the Cedar and Iowa rivers for drinking water, according to the organization’s Most Endangered Rivers publication.
The dead zone may seem like an abstract concept in Iowa, a state more than 800 miles to the north of the Gulf, but for fishermen in Louisiana the destruction is very real. Harmful algal blooms — the explosion of algae due to nitrogen and other pollutants — occur every year all along the coast of the United States; and they come with a price.
The Mississippi River Basin forms a large funnel, channeling nitrogen and other nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico, where a growing dead zone wrecks havoc on the marine ecosystems. The river basin includes parts of 31 different states, draining over 41 percent of the continental United States. With a watershed this large, over 18 million people depend upon the Mississippi for their water supply.
Everyday, Iowa’s rivers send massive loads of nitrogen through the plains of the Midwest, down the Mighty Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico. No, bloated fish carcasses are not surfing the waves of the Gulf. In fact, a birds-eye view of the Louisiana and Texas coasts might suggest life continues as usual. But the Northern Gulf of Mexico is in danger of slowly, silently slipping onto the list of hypoxic wastelands, bringing grave consequences for the life forms it supports — including our own.