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The Gulf Of Mexico's Dead Zone Forecasted To Reach Near Record Size

Satellite image and illustration of a dead zone in the southern U.S.

This year, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is forecast to be near record size. 

In this edition of River to River, we look at the role of nutrient pollution along the Mississippi River in creating this large, low-oxygenated area. Host Ben Kieffer sits down with Katie Peikes, Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter, and Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa’s IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering to discuss Iowa’s influence on the issue.

Peikes says the dead zone is characterized by water with depleted oxygen levels, caused in part by excessive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous traveling down the Mississippi River. The nutrients create algae blooms which starve the water of oxygen, threatening a variety of sea life.

Scientists at Louisiana State University are forecasting that the Gulf's dead zone will span 8,720 square miles this summer, which would be the second-largest gulf dead zone on record, Peikes says.

Jones says the recent high levels of precipitation and agricultural runoff in the Midwest has played a role in channeling high levels of nutrients into the gulf.

Jones also discusses a map he developed showing Iowa in terms of its fecal waste both from people and livestock. His research found that Iowa leads the nation in the amount of fecal waste generated. However, Jones says he is not against manure fertilization.

“I’m not really questioning the methods here,” says Jones. “What I question here is the scale at which we’re doing things. So much of our land has been committed to agricultural production, and we have so many animals in these watersheds; and then all that is happening in the middle of a continent where, by virtue of that, we have really unpredictable weather. And so, we have no margin for error here. If we want good water quality, we’re going to have to do things exactly right.”

Farm practices such as cover crops and wetlands have been shown to decrease nutrient pollution from farms, Jones says.

“We’re going to have to get practices on every acre, and we’re not there yet, not by a long shot.”

Other conversations during the hour include:

Jason Clayworth, an investigative reporter at The Des Moines Register, discusses a lawsuit concerning the treatment of troubled youth at the State Training School for Boys in Eldora, Iowa.

Chief Executive Officer for the Animal Rescue League Tim Colvin gives an update on the cat hoarding case in Madrid.

Ashley Lopez, a senior reporter for KUT News, Austin’s NPR Station, shares a home state view about presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

And Le Mars marks 150 years with polo and cricket matches. Mary Reynolds, the Le Mars Chamber of Commerce Main Street manager, shares about the town’s celebration.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River