• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

    "Great book and great blog - thanks for the first book I have seen that addresses the contemporary river, headwaters to gulf." Dan McGuiness, Audubon, St. Paul, Minnesota

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Conservation Buffers, Water Quality, and the Dead Zone

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it regulated sewage produced in our houses and businesses. It did not regulate water that washes off our streets and farm fields. What washes off our farm fields in the Midwest ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.  Freshwater is lighter than salt water. When it flows to the gulf, it floats on top of the salt water. Normally, gulf winds stir the two together, but, setting aside hurricanes, summer winds in the Gulf are light and the stirring does not happen. Algae bloom in the freshwater, dies, and decays, sucking the oxygen out of the water, creating a Dead Zone, a low oxygen zone that fish, which swim cannot cross, and kills fish that cannot.

Hieser Slough, Iowa

Hieser Slough, Iowa

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service announced that the agencies will provide $325 million over four years to farmers in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.  This will help the farmers implement conservation measures to retain nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, in their fields, keep the runoff out of the Ohio and Mississippi and therefore out of the Gulf of Mexico. The dense stand of trees that lines both sides of Hieser Slough, which runs between Iowa farm fields and the Mississippi,  soaks up nutrients, which might otherwise flow to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

Timbalier Island at the Gulf of Mexico

Timbalier Island at the Gulf of Mexico

Many farmers plow and fertilize their fields right up to the edge of sloughs that run through their fields, allowing nutrients to run directly into the slough and then to the river. The narrow, broken lines of trees, like that which lines Fish lake, are not enough to absorb the nutrients that farmers spread on their fields.

Fish Lake, Illinois

Fish Lake, Illinois

In addition, farmers have laid drain tiles under their fields to to lower the water table and speed water off their crops. In this way the roots reach down deep to the lowered water table during the dry season, making for stronger crops. During the Flood of 1993 hydrologists were stunned at the speed with which all that rain that fell on the Mississippi Basin drained off the tile-drained fields, in the uplands and the bottomlands, and to the river. Finally, streams like Fountain Creek,  which gather water and nutrients from the uplands and flow across the Mississippi floodplain, are channelized between levees from their exit from the uplands to the river. They gather deliver their water and nutrients directly to the river.

Fountain Creek, Monroe County, Illinois, 1993

Fountain Creek, Monroe County, Illinois, 1993

In Illinois and Iowa Trees Forever is taking applications from farmers, who want to participate in the Conservation Buffer Demonstration Project, which seems to be a separate project from the USDA project. Farmers can receive up to $3,000 to build riparian buffers along the streams that edge their fields, bio-retention cells, and rain gardens. The funding for this program comes from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to Trees Forever.

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6 Responses

  1. […] Conservation Buffers, Water Quality, and the Dead Zone « Quinta Scott’s Weblog quintascott.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/conservation-buffers-water-quality-and-the-dead-zone – view page – cached When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it regulated sewage produced in our houses and businesses. It did not regulate water that washes off our streets and farm fields. What washes off… (Read more)When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it regulated sewage produced in our houses and businesses. It did not regulate water that washes off our streets and farm fields. What washes off our farm fields in the Midwest ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. Freshwater is lighter than salt water. When it flows to the gulf, it floats on top of the salt water. (Read less) — From the page […]

  2. Thanks for sharing this important topic with people. I am highlighting this article in a future blog on blog.arborday.org that talks about conservation buffers

    • Thanks, Ben:

      There have been reports in the last few days that we may have been making progress in the Mid-west and putting less and less nutrients in the Upper Mississippi.

      However, I live on the edge of a golf course, a prolific user of fertilizers that have turned the pond green and the greens blue green in the days after they are fertilized.

      • I know many of the recreation lakes near my home can’t be used in the summer for swimming do to toxic blue green algae caused by nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers.

  3. The navigation pools on the Upper Mississippi also have low oxygen conditions from algae caused by nitrogen and phosphorus. So to the oxbow lakes in the Lower Mississippi valley. The problems extends clear to the Gulf of Mexico and the Dead Zone.

  4. […] Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, about how Chicago is the largest contributor to the Dead Zone, about conservation buffers on the Mississippi to retain nutrients we spray on our crops–soybeans, corn, golf courses, lawns, and backyard tomatoes–out of the Gulf of Mexico, […]

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