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February 01, 2012

Keeping the Herd Out of the Gulf

Gulf of Mexico dead zone

When most people think of the work that has yet to be done as the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster approaches, they envision black beaches, dying trees, and distressed marine life. Now a new noise is gaining volume in the wake of this mess and it couldn't be more of a head-turner -- cowbells. As strange as it sounds, government officials have begun to divert a fragment of their attention upstream to the rural communities of the five Gulf States.  

This interest has been gaining ground since the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a plan last month to reduce the dead zone, and improve water quality in the Gulf of Mexico. An article from the Associated Press outlines the strategy. The project, dubbed the Gulf of Mexico Initiative, will be stretched over a three-year period, and is funded by a hefty $50 million endowment from the federal government. This is a huge increase as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has struggled to distribute precious little finances to many communities in the region. 

The money will be spent on projects that will help farms function in more efficient, environmentally friendly ways. Officials from the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force report that changes as small as a trough or a fence to keep livestock from entering nearby rivers that feed into Gulf waters will help improve recovery efforts. When an excess of nutrients from fertilizer and/or cow manure is present, alga grows at an exponential rate, consuming more oxygen than it can produce, starving the water of sustenance. The resulting "dead zones" inhibit procreation and growth of other organisms, a process known as eutrophication.

In more demanding situations, the funds can be used to purchase heavy-duty equipment that can turn large amounts of soil or plow straighter, longer rows. These machines are also a huge help in containing livestock pollutants, but represent larger projects and come at bulkier costs.

Past attempts to aid farmers have only gone so far. Dallas Ford, a ranch owner from Tivoli, Texas, received funds from the NRCS to build fences around his land, but estimates as much as $20,000 in contracts are still needed to finish the work. Farmers like Mr. Ford can apply for aid as it is needed, but it is up to the NRCS to sift through the multitude of appeals and decide where funds are most appropriate and which will have the greatest impact on water quality. This presents a new problem, as an eleven-fold increase in funds is substantial, the extent to which it can help across the entire Gulf region is to be seen. 

--Maxwell Gerson, Sierra Club Louisiana Intern/image: NOAA

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