Fertilize Me: Dead zones of the Gulf

Green cloudy, dead water

Fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River basin creates a tremendous environmental and economic externality as it washes downstream to the Gulf of Mexico each spring and summer. The water becomes so depleted of oxygen that life nearly ceases to exist a vast swatch of the sea.

Here’s the short explanation: Farmers, being risk averse, apply excessive amounts of fertilizers (namely nitrates and phosphorous) to their land. This invariably washes to the nearest stream or creek which feeds the watershed of the Mississippi River system. This basin covers more than 40 percent of the contiguous U.S.

Once in the Gulf of Mexico, the fertilizers fuel massive algae growth. When the algae die (or are eaten and excreted by zooplankton), their decomposition by bacteria robs the water of dissolved oxygen, which other life needs to survive.

The result: The creeping dead zone visible above in the cloudy, green water.

The problem is rooted in agricultural policy, lack of science and inappropriate property rights/controls. There are economic and social answers, but they won’t be easy. The primary one involves ag subsidy reform and taxes, which would almost certainly anger the farm lobby.

If you want to read more, click here for an economic analysis in PDF form.

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