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Gulf of Mexico

Reducing the Dead Zone and Mitigating Floods


To Build A Better Ditch

The two-stage ditch is a conservation tool that is beneficial to both agriculture and the environment.

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Story Highlights
  • The Conservancy is working with farmers to promote more effective and efficient use of fertilizers
  • The reconnection of rivers to their floodplains not only helps to mitigate floods, but filter excess nutrients from the water
  • Legislation like the RESTORE Act and Farm Bill will play a critical role in protecting the country's natural resources
"Congress needs to ensure fines from the spill stay in the Gulf and are used to help boost economic recovery."
Cindy Brown

Gulf of Mexico Program Director
The Nature Conservancy

It's time for us to take a fresh look at the way we manage large rivers and the gulfs and bays into which they flow. We've seen that dams and levees alone will not solve problems like floods and their impact in the Gulf. By managing nutrients more efficiently in farm fields and by restoring wetlands and riparian systems to capture nutrients and reduce runoff, the Conservancy's Mississippi River Program and Gulf of Mexico Initiative are working with farmers and other partners to slow or even reduce the growth of the Gulf’s dead zone and its effects throughout the region.

In river basins throughout the Mississippi River watershed, Conservancy staff are working with farmers, university scientists and departments of agriculture to promote more effective and efficient use of fertilizers and reduce the amount of nutrients that enters our rivers from other sources. In many cases better nutrient management also leads to better soil management, which reduces surface runoff and flooding and maintains or enhances agricultural productivity.  

Over the past 40 years about 70-80 percent of additional food needed by our growing population has come from the intensification of farming on existing acres. It's simple. If we don't do anything to conserve soil and reduce nutrient loss on existing croplands, we'll have to clear more land and we'll continue to have growing dead zones in the Gulf. Learn more about the Conservancy's work with agriculture

The Conservancy also works to reconnect rivers to their floodplains, which does more than help mitigate flooding in metro areas. Floodplains also act as filters that remove excess nutrients from water. The Conservancy has worked with partners in implementing the two largest floodplain reconnection projects in the Mississippi River Valley – one at the Emiquon River in Illinois and one 25-square-mile project on the Ouachita River in Louisiana.

"We must invest in America’s lands and waters to keep them strong and productive," said Michael Rueter, the Conservancy's director of its Great Rivers Partnership and the North American Freshwater Program. "Recently proposed budget cuts in Congress threaten to eliminate or drastically reduce conservation programs across the country and along the Mississippi. If passed, these cuts further constrain our ability to solve problems like flooding and the dead zone."

As it stands now, money from the Clean Water Act—or 'BP fine money' from the oil spill—is at risk of being placed in the nation's general treasury. "Congress needs to ensure the bulk of this money stays in this system to restore critical habitats like floodplains and coastal wetlands," said Cindy Brown, director of the Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Program. "The health of the environment here is so closely linked to the health of the economy, and these natural systems have declined after decades of abuse and overuse."

The passing of the next Farm Bill – likely to take place in 2013 – will also play a critical role in protecting the country’s natural resources. The Farm Bill is the single largest source of federal conservation funding. Programs supported by the bill help farmers, ranchers and other landowners continue their traditional ways of life while protecting vital natural resources and habitats. Learn more about the Farm Bill.

Learn more about the Gulf's dead zone and ways in which you can help

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