Midwest Rivers Are Major Contributors to The Dead Zone

Efforts to clean up a major water source are only the beginning steps in this massive problem

FIRST PUBLISHED May 2019 Edible Communities, Edible Indy

We take a lot of things for granted. From the air we breathe to the water we drink to the earth beneath our feet, most of us operate under the assumption that these life necessities will always be here, nearly free for use and always clean. Yet that simply isn’t the case—especially when it comes to our drinking water.

The majority of Central Indiana residents get their water from the White River. And though we’d like to think it’s pristine, in reality it’s not. It is, however, much cleaner now than it once was. In 2011, close to 80 percent of the Upper White River Watershed was tainted with E. coli (fecal contamination) and a 2012 analysis by Environment America—a nonprofit federation of state-based environmental advocacy organizations— found that Indiana dumped more pollutants into its waterways than any other state. Add to that nearly a century of industrial waste from oil refineries, canneries, meatpacking plants and other factories and it’s no wonder the river has a reputation for being dirty and unhealthy for human recreation. Thankfully, these harmful practices are no longer acceptable and Hoosiers have made great strides to clean up the river running through our backyards.

Yet there are still challenges. As the White River moves along, eventually dumping into the Wabash River, it carries with it some undesirable souvenirs. According to Mike Dunn, director of Indiana Freshwater Conservation Programs, the White River is the leading contributor of nitrogen to the Wabash within Indiana, which is the second highest contributor of nitrogen to the entire Mississippi Basin.


At just over 500 miles long, the Wabash River is Indiana’s largest watershed and longest river with multiple tributaries including the White River, Tippecanoe River and others. Compared to the country’s two longest rivers—the 2,341-mile-long Missouri and the 2,320-mile-long Mississippi—the Wabash might not seem significant, but it provides drinking water to 72 percent of Indiana’s counties, making it a vital water source for the large majority of Hoosiers.

If you follow the Wabash from its source all the way to the ocean, you cover around 1,200 miles of waterway as it flows into the Ohio River, then the Mississippi, eventually dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way you encounter some of the same things that Paul Dresser wrote about in his 19th century hit song, “Along the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” You see his “waves of cornfields” and “distant woodlands” and plenty of farmland too, but what you won’t see are the quantities of nutrients in the water— nutrients found in fertilizers spread on farmlands that rainfall eventually washes off, into the river.

While these nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium among others—might be beneficial for some crops, they’re not good for water. In fact, they don’t provide any kind of nourishment to the plants and animals in or around a body of water.

They do feed one of the world’s largest dead zones—an oxygen-free area the size of Connecticut. Located at the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, nothing can grow or live in the oxygen-deprived area, causing a nearly $1 billion economic disruption to the Gulf’s fishing industry, let alone the environmental impact.

And the biggest contributor to the growth of the Gulf’s dead zone is toxins from agricultural runoff, of which 11 percent comes directly from the Wabash River.


The Wabash river accounts for a mere one percent of the water flowing into the Mississippi River, but a 2014 study conducted by the University of Notre Dame found that 11 percent of the nutrients dumped into the Gulf come directly from the Wabash. The study, underwritten by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, is one of many ways the Conservancy is bringing awareness to the ongoing issue of agricultural runoff. The organization also works directly with landowners, agribusiness, policy makers and others to improve water quality along the Wabash River.

One of the strategies now being implemented is the removal of marginal farmlands from production—those lying in floodplains—and restoring the land to natural habitats. And many farmers, says The Nature Conservancy’s Matt Smith, are on board because the government pays them to do so as part of its Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program. The program, funded by the Conservancy and the USDA, promotes the conversion of these farmlands back to wetlands, thus significantly reducing the amount of nutrients entering the river. Their goal: a 20 percent reduction of nutrients entering the Mississippi basin by 2025.

The agriculture sector, including CAFOs, is the leading contributor of pollutants to lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. —The National Association of Local Boards of Health


But there are other contributors to the pollution in our rivers. Nutrients are an issue, but so are the toxins created by massive quantities of decomposing animal manure found on large-scale farms.

“Animal manure contains parasites that are toxic to humans,” says Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. And as large quantities of waste, like those found on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), begin to decompose, they release air emissions, many of which are extremely dangerous to humans. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, states with high concentrations of CAFOs experience on average 20 to 30 serious water quality problems per year as a result of manure management problems (see sidebar).

Earlier this year, Frank testified before the Indiana General Assembly stating that CAFOs affect our overall health by spreading (through both air and water) disease-causing bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli, all found on many livestock farms. She was one of many who testified in support of Indiana House Bill 1328. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Representative Sue Errington (D-Muncie), and Representative Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville), calls for action to, among other things, “safeguard our lakes, rivers and streams by requiring CAFOs to adhere to waste management plans and by prohibiting new construction or expansion of CAFOs in floodplains, karst terrain, and other sensitive areas.” The bill failed, but Representative Errington says she hopes to reintroduce similar legislation next session.


In the meantime, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture is diligently working to promote voluntary conservation through various initiatives like Clean Water Indiana (CWI). Similar to the federal government’s Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program, the CWI provides financial assistance to landowners and conservation groups alike. Administered by the Division of Soil Conservation under the direction of the State Soil Conservation Board, the CWI awards grants for locally driven programs, both rural and urban, that focus on education, invasive species, livestock, row crops and urban or small-plot conservation. To date, 14 projects have been funded across 25 districts, totaling $896,945.

Another group making waves nationally that started here in Indiana is Clear Choices Clean Water. The campaign is supported by sponsorships from a variety of individuals, businesses, government agencies and civic groups, all working together to educate individuals to make better choices when it comes to water use. Landscaping with native plants, using less fertilizer, managing yard and pet wastes, maintaining septic systems, fostering soil health and using less water all help to preserve and protect our water sources. Clear Choices Clean Water encourages people to take personal action to do the little things that combine to make a big difference in the health of our streams, lakes and rivers. Visit ClearChoicesCleanWater.org and take the pledge to start, or continue, good behaviors that make a difference for water quality and for water conservation.

As defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) has more than 1,000 animal units (1,000 pounds live weight=one unit) and equates to 1,000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds, 125 thousand broiler chickens or 82 thousand laying hens or pullets, confined onsite for more than 45 days during the year. Additionally, any sized animal feeding operation that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterway is defined as a CAFO, regardless of size.

watershed graphic

What is a watershed? A watershed is an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay or any point along a stream channel. SOURCE: U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School.

  • 72% of Indiana’s 92 counties get their water supply from the Wabash watershed and its tributaries.
  • 1% of the water flowing into the Mississippi comes from the Wabash watershed.
  • 11% of the polluting nutrients that make it to the Gulf come directly from the Wabash.
  • 1 of 3 Americans gets their drinking water from rivers. SOURCE: The Nature Conservancy, The Indiana Department of Environmental Management and AmericanRivers.org

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