As the surging waters of the Mississippi pass downstream, they leave behind flooded towns and inundated lives and carry forward a brew of farm chemicals and waste that this year given record flooding is expected to result in the largest dead zone ever in the Gulf of Mexico.
Volunteers sandbag a farm south of Oslo, Minn., along the flooding Red River in April.
Dead zones have been occurring in the gulf since the 1970s, and studies show that the main culprits are nitrogen and phosphorus from crop fertilizers and animal manure in river runoff. They settle in at the mouth of the gulf and fertilize algae, which prospers and eventually starves other living things of oxygen.
Government studies have traced a majority of those chemicals in the runoff to nine farming states, and yet today, decades after the dead zones began forming, there is still little political common ground on how to abate this perennial problem. Scientists who study dead zones predict that the affected area will increase significantly this year, breaking records for size and damage.
For years, environmentalists and advocates for a cleaner gulf have been calling for federal action in the form of regulation. Since 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency
has been encouraging all states to place hard and fast numerical limits on the amount of those chemicals allowed in local waterways. Yet of the nine key farm states that feed the dead zone, only two, Illinois and Indiana, have acted, and only to cover lakes, not the rivers or streams that merge into the Mississippi.
The lack of formal action upstream has long been maddening to the downstream states most affected by the pollution, and the extreme flooding this year has only increased the tensions.