Nitrogen is considered a limiting nutrient in the Gulf of Mexico, the body of water where much of Minnesota’s river and stream waters ultimately discharge. When nutrients in the Mississippi River originating in 31 states reach the Gulf of Mexico, a low oxygen “dead zone” known as hypoxia develops.
Hypoxia, which means low oxygen, occurs when excess nutrients, primarily N and P, stimulate algal growth in the Mississippi River and gulf waters. The algae and associated zooplankton grow well beyond the natural capacity of predators or consumers to maintain the plankton at a more balanced level. As the short-lived plankton die and sink to deeper waters, bacteria decompose the phytoplankton carbon, consuming considerable oxygen in the process. Water oxygen levels plummet, forcing mobile creatures like fish, shrimp, and crab to move out of the area. Less mobile aquatic life become stressed and/or dies.
The freshwater Mississippi River is less dense and warmer compared to the more dense cooler saline waters of the gulf. This results in a stratification of the incoming river waters and the existing gulf waters, preventing the mixing of the oxygen-rich surface water with oxygen-poor water on the bottom. Without mixing, oxygen in the bottom water is limited and the hypoxic zone remains. Hypoxia can persist for several months until there is strong mixing of the ocean waters, which can come from a hurricane or cold fronts in the fall and winter.
Hypoxic waters have dissolved oxygen concentrations of less than about 2-3 mg/l. Fish and shrimp species normally present on the ocean floor are not found when dissolved oxygen levels reduce to less than 2 mg/l. The Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone is the largest in the United States and the second largest in the world. The maximum areal extent of this hypoxic zone was measured at 8,500 square miles during the summer of 2002. The average size of the hypoxic zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico in recent years (between 2004 and 2008) has been about 6,500 square miles, the size of Lake Ontario.
Hypoxia Task Force
A multi-state Hypoxia Task Force (which includes Minnesota) released their first Action Plan in 2001. This plan was reaffirmed and updated in a 2008 Action Plan. The Hypoxia Task Force established a collaborative interim goal to reduce the 5-year running average areal extent of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers (1,931 square miles). Further information about Gulf of Mexico hypoxia can be found at: www.gulfhypoxia.net/Overview/
A thorough technical discussion of the research associated with Gulf of Mexico hypoxia and possible nutrient reduction options is presented by the US EPA (2007). The report notes that P may be more influential than N in the near-shore gulf water algae growth, particularly in the spring months, when algae and phytoplankton growth are often greatest. In the transition months between spring and summer, the algae and phytoplankton growth are controlled largely by the coupling of P and N. Nitrogen typically becomes the controlling nutrient in the summer and fall months. Based on these more recent findings, emphasis has shifted to developing strategies for dual nutrient removal (P and N). The Science Advisory Board recommends a 45% reduction in riverine TP and TN loads into the Gulf of Mexico (US EPA 2007).
Minnesota’s Contribution to Gulf Hypoxia
Certain areas of Minnesota release large quantities of N and P to Minnesota streams. Much of the nutrients remain in the Mississippi River system, ultimately reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Alexander et al. (2008) used computer modeling (SPARROW) to estimate the proportion of gulf nutrients originating in different geographic areas. The model accounted for the loss of nutrients in the river, river pools, and backwaters prior to reaching the Gulf of Mexico. This modeling indicated that Minnesota contributed 3% of Gulf of Mexico N and 2% of the P. However, with more recent SPARROW modeling, Minnesota’s contribution is estimated to be higher, ranking as the sixth highest state for N contributions behind Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. The more recent modeling estimates indicate that Minnesota is responsible for about 6% of the N loading and 4% of the P loading into the Gulf of Mexico (Robertson, 2012 personal communication).
Recognizing that it will take a concerted effort by all states which contribute significant amounts of nutrients to the gulf, the MPCA agreed with other top nutrient contributing states to complete and implement a comprehensive N and P reduction strategy. This plan was completed in 2014 (Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, 2008). The goal of the Action Plan is to reduce nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico while at the same time addressing in-state water protection and restoration.
Minnesota Nitrogen Study
The MPCA conducted a study of nitrogen in surface waters so that we can better understand the nitrogen conditions in Minnesota’s surface waters, along with the sources, pathways, trends and potential ways to reduce nitrogen in waters.
Source: Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters (2013)