“A fleck of phosphorus fertilizer costs a farmer almost nothing. “But that half pinhead per gallon can cost society millions in lost recreational value and cleanup costs,” said Downing, an Iowa State University professor whose water-monitoring group tests 137 Iowa lakes. “We don’t have lakes that we could point to and say: ‘Here is a pristine lake that has been unimpacted by people.’ ”
You wake up to cereal made from midwestern corn. You slip on cotton clothes, get into a vehicle fueled partly by ethanol and dine later on chicken and rice—all made possible by crops from the Mississippi River Basin, a vast area that stretches from Montana to New York and drains all or parts of 31 states.
The part of the basin east of the Mississippi River largely relies on rain to grow crops; farmers on the west side irrigate much, much more. All told, it’s among the most productive farming regions in the world.
Trouble is, fertilizer that flows from fields (and cities) takes a toll on local waters and eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the economically important fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen and phosphorus pollution suffocates marine life and has led to a dead zone larger than the state of Connecticut.
Nearly four out of 10 ears of corn grown in the world come from the Mississippi River watershed. So much corn, soy, and wheat grow here that some communities claim superlatives—Decatur, Illinois, “Soybean Capital of the World;” Sumner County, Kansas, “Wheat Capital of the World;” and Iowa, “Food Capital of the World.” The lion’s share of the country’s corn, grain, livestock, poultry, cotton, sorghum, and soy is grown in the Mississippi basin.”
Read more: National Geographic