MADISON, WI MAY 5, 2011 In their eagerness to cut nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, people have often sought simple explanations for the problem: too many large animal operations, for instance, or farmers who apply too much fertilizer, which then flows into waterways.
But according to new modeling research that examined phosphorus loading from all 1768 counties in the Mississippi River Basin (MRB), the true causes aren't nearly so straightforward. Livestock manure is widespread in many MRB counties, for example, but it shows little relationship to water quality, say researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Cornell University in the May-June 2011 issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality.
Moreover, areas that load the most phosphorus into the Mississippi are also places where farmers add less phosphorus to the soil than they remove each year in crop harvests, suggesting that overzealous fertilizer use is not the issue.
"If it were that, it would be easy to solve. But it's not that," says Mark David, a University of Illinois biogeochemist who led the research. "It's much more complex. So I think in that sense addressing the problem is harder."
Soil erosion and tile drainage contribute large amounts of phosphorus to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico each year, helping fuel a "dead zone" of oxygen-starved water in the Gulf that reached near-record size last summer. Local water quality may also decline due to phosphorus-driven algal blooms.
In an effort to pinpoint the most important sources of phosphorus across the entire MRB, David's team calculated the yearly phosphorus inputs and outputs for every county in the basin from 1997 to 2006. After aggregating these and other data within 113 watersheds throughout the MRB, they then estimated the river load of phosphorus from every county between January and June for the same time period.
|Contact: Sarah Uttech|
American Society of Agronomy