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What a Disaster: Grappling with the Gulf's "Dead Zones"

Until Washington comes up with a plan to address the growing Gulf Dead Zones, thousands of square miles of ocean waters face a grim future.

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The result would be "a disaster for the Gulf of Mexico," says Simon Donner, a geographer at the University of British Columbia. Along with scientist Chris Kucharik, Donner published a study in the March 18, 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which showed that:

[S]caling up corn production to meet the 15-billion-gallon goal would increase nitrogen loading in the Dead Zone by 10-18%. This would boost nitrogen levels to twice the level recommended by the Mississippi Basin/Gulf of Mexico Water Nutrient Task Force, a coalition of federal, state, and tribal agencies that has monitored the Dead Zone since 1997. The task force says a 30% reduction of nitrogen runoff is needed if the Dead Zone is to shrink.

Groups like the American Farmland Trust are pushing for solutions: Their Best Management Practices contest pays farmers to reduce fertilizer use and therefore nitrate runoff. But these are still small-scale answers to a national problem that demands a federal response.

Until Washington comes up with a plan to address the growing Gulf Dead Zones, thousands of square miles of ocean waters -- and the thousands of families who depend on them for a living -- face a grim future, long after news headlines of the BP disaster fade away.

Chris Kromm works with Southern Exposure magazine and the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina.