Hypoxia, a deadly lack of oxygen, is forecast to grow to 6000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico -an area the size of Connecticut – according to Boulder-based scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. No longer able to support marine life, the dead sea zone has been building over a complex series of steps, set in motion by the flow of farm and industrial runoff down the Mississippi River.
Federal officials had planned to reduce the size of the dead zone to about a third of its estimated size by 2015. But in the face of a growing problem, and without much progress in reducing the hypoxic zone, they recently kicked that can down the road another 20 years to 2035.
But environmental scientists are looking at a solution, to stem the tide of fatal nitrogen and phosphorous. Imagine a new mini-ecosystem lining streams and rivers in the Corn Belt: cottonwood trees closest to the water, black walnut next, then elderberry bushes and finally perennial grasses that nestle up to the corn fields. These plants can hold nitrogen in their roots, and prevent runoff from entering waterways.