SD Fertilizer Runoff And The Gulf Dead Zone

Jun 24, 2016

Oceanographers fear that this year the Gulf of Mexico could see its largest dead zone ever recorded. 

Researchers attribute the massive annual die off of fish around the Mississippi delta to fertilizer runoff from agriculture in the Great Plains.

Photo courtesy South Dakota State University iGrow

Officials in South Dakota say they recognize this problem and are taking action.

Since the 1970s, the Gulf of Mexico has seen an annual decrease in biodiversity. During the early summer the runoff from fertilizers used for corn and livestock feed drains into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and feeds aquatic algae in the Gulf of Mexico. When the algae decay, they use oxygen from the water and damage neighboring sea life.

David Smith is a specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. He says farmers in South Dakota should practice proper fertilizer management to help alleviate this problem. This management includes not planting too close to ditches or waterways.   But he says officials are also taking action to improve water quality. He credits recent state legislation to regulate fertilizer tonnage.  He also points to the formation of a new nutrient management board in July to address water quality.

“Just for South Dakota, there could be other states that don’t have this board or also contribute to the water quality. It’s hard to single out how much responsibility South Dakota has and what is actually going on because there’s so much going into it," says Smith.

Peter Jahraus is the administrator of the watershed protection program for the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He focuses on providing funding for agriculture producers who volunteer to control fertilizer runoff. He says agriculture is exempt from strict regulation through the Clean Water Act.  So he sees challenges in creating any change in fertilizer runoff on a large scale.

“Sometimes the general public, as long as they have clean water and don’t have any shortages, they maybe don’t see it as such a big issue, but I think if there’s going to any additional regulation, I think it will be driven on the local level," says Jahraus.

Jahraus adds that it's hard to predict if current efforts will have a major impact on water quality in the Gulf of Mexico. But he says continued education and awareness are key to promote conservation.