Dead Zone Pollution Is Growing Despite Decades of Work, So Who’s the Culprit?
One of our most widespread environmental problems, this pollution continues to pour into the rivers, and ultimately the Gulf, at a growing pace.
by Sara Shipley Hiles
The Missouri River stretches more than a quarter-mile from shore to shore here, its muddy water the color of coffee with a shot of cream. The river carved this valley hundreds of thousands of years ago, and in the 1830s, it deposited the German settlers who founded this city. Today, visitors who sip local wine in hillside gazebos can gaze down at the water and imagine being on the Rhine.
For two centuries, Hermann has been known for the Missouri River – and now the river is making Hermann known for an unexpected reason: It is a hot spot for nitrate.
Washing off farms and yards, nitrate is largely responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s infamous “dead zone.” Nitrate and other nutrients from the vast Mississippi River basin funnel into the Gulf, sucking oxygen out of the water and killing almost everything in their path.
The pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sewage treatment plants along the rivers already have spent billions of dollars, and some farmers now use computers to apply fertilizer with pinpoint precision.
But after three decades of extensive efforts to clean it up, nitrate along the rivers is getting worse. In Hermann, the levels have increased 75 percent since 1980, according to U.S. Geological Survey research published last year.
The pollutant continues to pour into the rivers, and ultimately the Gulf, at a growing pace. And no one – at least yet – has figured out exactly why…