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Gulf of Mexico deadzone[Excerpt]  As if weeks of flooding throughout the Mississippi River basin were not enough, now those floodwaters are expected to deliver yet another big punch: the creation of a giant“dead zone” in the fisheries-rich Gulf of Mexico.  Each year, the discharge of fertilizer pollution from the basin’s corn and soybean farms promotes algal growth that robs Gulf water of oxygen, stressing and killing fish and other aquatic life.  Due to all the fertilizer-laden floodwaters washed into the Gulf this spring, scientists are expecting this summer’s dead zone to measure between 8,500 and 9,421 square miles — an area roughly the size of New Hampshire and bigger than the largest dead zone measured to date, in 2002.

This spring, the Mississippi River is broadcasting a message loud and clear: it’s time to put nature back into the water equation.   And hopefully, the ears of the Obama Administration are wide open, because it is now completing new guidance on federal dams, levees and other water projects that could influence the health of the nation’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastal zones for a long time to come. These guidelines on water planning have not been re-written since 1983.

Over the last century, the building of dams and levees, the draining of wetlands and the construction of houses and farms on historic floodplains has marched forward in the name of national economic progress.  These projects, however, have typically been justified by a very narrow definition of progress– one measured strictly in dollars and cents.  Other values harder to quantify, such as habitat for wildlife and the cleansing action of wetlands, often got short shrift.  As a result, rivers rarely flow like rivers any more, millions of acres of wetlands are gone, fish and wildlife habitat have disappeared, and flood risks in many areas are increasing... 

Originally published June 15, 2011 at National Geographic
Image credit: NASA


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