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Our reliance on the Mississippi River is slowly destroying it

Pollutants washing into the Mississippi River are creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts.

Pollutants washing into the Mississippi River are creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts. Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Minnesotans love the Mississippi River. Its source is our very own Lake Itasca, and it’s hard not to feel some sense of ownership as it winds through our state on the way to Louisiana.

But, of course, the Mississippi is not ours. It’s a 2,300-mile-long titan flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, and it provides water and work for millions of people. It’s bigger than even our sizable regard for it.

And its problems are bigger than us too. As the Wall Street Journal demonstrates, our reliance on the Mississippi to feed our crops and, by extension, the world, is slowly killing us.

It all begins in Lake Itasca, near Bemidji. There, the Mississippi is little more than a stream, “flowing from a lake in a forest wilderness, crystal clear and toxin-free.”

But it’s downhill from there. As the river winds south, it picks up a barrage of contaminants from neighboring farmland. Fertilizer and manure wash in, bringing with them nitrogen and phosphorus, which feeds great mounds of algae blooms.

These are not only slimy and unsightly; if you’re a fish, they can be deadly. Algae has a nasty habit of gobbling up surrounding oxygen and suffocating river life.

If that weren’t bad enough, the Mississippi has its more troubled cousin, the Minnesota River, to contend with. The river flows some 318 miles from the state’s western border to St. Paul, straight through leagues of corn and soybeans, and it’s redolent with excess phosphorus, washed-out dirt, and plenty of E. coli from faulty septic tanks.

“Lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are often too polluted to fish or swim in,” the Journal says, “And the [Minnesota] River has become the state’s biggest contributor of nitrates to the Mississippi.”

As a state, we’ve known this for a while. But the Mississippi doesn’t stop there, and neither does the Journal.

From here, the river flows to Iowa—the “most productive farm state along the river,” with a whopping 70 percent of its surface area used for farming—dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of nitrates into the water.

Then it’s off to Missouri, where the riverside town of Hiawatha has been paying for a new treatment plant to siphon nitrates out of the water and prevent possible birth defects, thyroid problems, and cancer. After that, it’s through the chicken farms of Arkansas and Mississippi, which pump more contaminated runoff back into the system.

Finally, we arrive at the Gulf of Mexico, where all those displaced nutrients wash out to sea and create “dead zones” of oxygen-gobbling, fish-killing algae blooms every summer. These cost the nation’s tourism and seafood industry $82 million a year. According to the Journal, scientists predict this year’s dead zone will be roughly the size of Massachusetts.

It’s a heavy truth for each state to contemplate, but especially the belt of Midwestern farms that make up the bulk of the journey. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that agricultural sources in the Mississippi River Basin’s watersheds contribute 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads, versus about 9 to 12 percent from cities and towns.

It’s unlikely to get better anytime soon. Climate scientists—as the Chicago Tribune points out—project the Midwest’s future features a wetter climate with more rainfall in the winter and spring… meaning even more runoff.

The Journal calls this “one of the nation’s biggest ecological disasters,” but as far as we in the Midwest are concerned, it’s business as usual. If we expect to see an end to the mass die-off anytime soon, it means we’ll have to see massive systemic change all the way upriver.

And that starts—literally—with us.