A farmer in Illinois sprays emerging corn in June 2020 (Credit: Darrell Hoemann, Investigate Midwest); The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico in South Louisiana in an undated image taken from the International Space Station (Credit: ROSCOSMOS/NASA). Graphic: Annie Ropeik, Ag & Water Desk

Runoff from fertilized farm fields across the nation’s largest watershed has created a polluted “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – with little sign of slowing down. What can be done to stem the flow?

This runoff threatens marine wildlife and fisheries and threatens water supplies upstream. Government agencies set targets to fix the problem. But, despite more than a quarter-century of federal effort and billions in investment, advocates, scientists and regulators say the basin is “not even close” to those targets.

From the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent journalism collaborative based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, Farm to Trouble examines what can be done to stem the flow of the farm runoff that’s choking the Gulf.

As conservation lags, so does progress in slashing Gulf’s ‘dead zone’

One year away from a federal deadline to reduce nutrient runoff into the Gulf of Mexico by 20%, increases in tile drainage, livestock and fertilizer use have made success unlikely.

By Erin Jordan, The Gazette

At the mouth of the Mississippi, Louisiana bears the burden of upstream runoff. Why doesn’t it push for solutions?

This summer’s “dead zone,” a low-oxygen area where the river empties into the sea, could span 5,827 square miles across the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana has the power to call for change.

By Delaney Dryfoos, The Lens

Not just a Gulf problem: Mississippi River farm runoff pollutes upstream waters

Worsening local effects on health and recreation in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin are spurring action on problems that also cause the Gulf of Mexico’s chronic “dead zone.”

By Madeline Heim, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Could the Mississippi River benefit from Chesapeake Bay’s strategy to improve water quality?

Sluggish progress on reducing nutrient runoff into the Bay marks an inconvenient truth, but offers lessons for others seeking to clean their watersheds.

By Bennet Goldstein, Wisconsin Watch

“We should have a sense of urgency”: Drainage tile drives nutrient pollution

Agricultural drainage tile, a system used by farmers to increase crop yields, is a main contributor to excess nutrients in waterways.

By Joy Mazur, Columbia Missourian

The series was released June 18, 2024 and, like all of the Ag & Water Desk’s work, is free for news outlets to publish, adapt and localize. Editors can sign up here for access and future story alerts.

This is the second major collaborative series from the Ag & Water Desk, which was founded in 2021 and began publication in 2022. Its October 2022 project When It Rains won a 2023 Covering Climate Now award and was republished by more than 60 news outlets nationwide.