Director Update: June 2017

Fish at the surface, gulping air and trying to escape the bloom. Photo courtesy of Tyler Tunney and the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.

In last month’s column, I wrote that Kansas is green this season. The same above average rainfall greening up the rolling hills of eastern Kansas is also greening up lakes and rivers across the Upper Midwest and causing alarming predictions for a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Check out this image from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. Is that the Caribbean, you ask? Looks like the marine blue of the tropics, you say. Nope, it’s the Yahara River, Madison Wisconsin, on June 16th, overwhelmed with blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria.  If you read the Center’s blog post and look at the pictures (caution: several disturbing photos of dead things) you will see why overwhelmed is an appropriate word.

At the other end of the Mississippi River, scientists estimate that we will see the third largest dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico, disrupting shrimp markets and the livelihoods and quality of life for many of our downstream neighbors.

Scientists estimate that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” will be the third largest in 32 years. Photo courtesy of Mark Schleifstein and the Times-Picayune.

In the Great Lakes Basin, NOAA and Heidelberg University predict that Lake Erie algae blooms will be of moderate severity in 2017, once again threatening the drinking water of approximately 11 million people.

We know that nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland and urban landscapes, relocated from land to water by heavy rain events, is leading to these dangerous, expensive, and sad events. Yes, sad – no one likes to see polluted water, dead fish, or hear parents telling children that they cannot go swimming on a hot summer day.

While it would be easy to get disheartened or default to a new, poorer status quo, constructive conversations about conditions like these can mobilize people around clear solutions like more perennial cover on our landscapes; taking unprofitable land out of agricultural production; increasing water use efficiency so less irrigation water is lost to lakes, reservoirs and streams; revitalizing our soil so that it holds more water and nutrients where they’re needed; and urban/rural partnerships for more cost effective nutrient management.  

It’s true that in some cases the systems we have in place do not support the best choices for water and the people that use it. We created those systems; together we can update them to reflect the new knowledge and new management systems of today.

If you would like to contribute ideas for the future of the North Central Region Water Network, feel free to send me a note at

Rebecca Power, Network Director

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