March 22, 2012

A Watershed Approach for the Mississippi

Today is World Water Day, and it just so happens that this year focuses on water and food security! Agriculture is not only a primary user of water, but it also impacts water quality considerably. A recent National Geographic Magazine article explored the challenges posed by agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin. As part of the Global Water Issues News Series, the article lays out how the vast swaths of areas cultivated in crops and dosed heavily with fertilizers and other inputs are impacting the Gulf of Mexico.

The issue is critically important considering the reach of this region of the United States, producing the bulk of the country’s corn, grain, cotton, sorghum, soy, and even livestock.  The article not only documents the oxygen-deficient environment caused by the runoff of fertilizers and wastes along the Mississippi, but also articulates plausible solutions for tackling this watershed-scale issue. These consist primarily of shifting the practices and crops of individual farmers.

However, such a complex and large-scale issue could benefit from broader and more coordinated efforts in the basin. The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) instituted the Mississippi River Basin Health Watersheds Initiative as a step in this direction, directing certain Farm Bill conservation programs and extension support towards priority watersheds.

More In in Staying Current


  • Tim Gieseke
    March 22, 2012 at 9:31am

    These persistent large-scale and complex issues will benefit from additional farm bill resources such as the MRBI, but they cannot be resolved by them. The main reason is that the water quality and other natural resource issues do not emerge from an ecological problem, but from an economic problem. And that is a bridge that few are comfortable with crossing due to not knowing what is on the other side. Most economists see it as an absolute impossibility to address such intangible and public goods with an economic system they see a highly refined (yet it is chock full of externalities). Most ecologists see it as a deal with the devil, or a capitalist that would commoditize nature’s goods. As an ecocommercist, I see it as commoditizing land management strategies that improve the natural capital that spontaneously generates ecosystem services in direct proportion to how the land is managed. I also see the flip side of the “tragedy of the commons” coin as “symbiotic demand”. Symbiotic demand utilizes the two most powerful attributes of each system – symbiosis of the ecological system and self-interests of the economic system. As a farmer, or better said, as an agro-ecologist, if I don’t obey both of these strict laws I am quickly humbled.

  • Dr Mohammed Ataur Rahman
    March 22, 2012 at 6:35am

    Water is indispensable natural resource for human and other lives. But agricultural pollutants diminishing the freshwater resource and destroying the aquatic habitats not only in the USA but also in many other parts of the world like Bangladesh . The agricultural as well as industrial and urban pollutants flowing down to the rivers and then to the Bay of Bengal and thousands of flora and fauna are at a risk of destruction. So immediate attention should be given on right type of agricultural practice with right crop at right place with right cultural practice.