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The Gulf Was Sick Before the Oil Spill, and How to Make it Well Again

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It's been more than four months since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, creating the worst oil disaster in U.S. history. While the gusher has been capped, the cleanup will continue for months, if not years.

The Gulf of Mexico is sick, but, in fact, it's been ill for a long time, and it needs a bigger fix. Now is the time to look at the broader picture, which includes water, soil, energy and climate -- more broadly, the health of our nation's natural resources. A National Carbon Reserve would concretely address the source of the Gulf's maladies and offer myriad side benefits, such as carbon sequestration.

Before the spill, there was a dead zone in the Gulf that had reached the size of the state of Massachusetts. It is the consequence of eutrophication, the accumulation of the nitrogen and phosphorus common in fertilizers, which creates algal blooms, which, in turn, die, and deplete the oxygen in the water. In these so-called anoxic conditions, marine creatures simply can't breathe.

The Gulf Dead Zone's main artery is the Mississippi River, which dumps its high-nutrient, but deadly, fertilizer runoff some 100 miles south of New Orleans. The problem is that the Mississippi's vast watershed (covering 43 percent of the entire lower 48 United States) and much of America's agricultural heartland are sick as well.

The problems are well-understood: years of poor planning for public and private land use; degraded habitat and agricultural tillage of farm fields that contributes to soil erosion and greenhouse gases; excessive dependence on industrial fertilizers on farmlands; dams clogged with sediment that never reaches the Gulf to sustain its wetlands.

The solutions are clear as well. We need a healthy land ethic that focuses on regrowing soil and replenishing clean water in ways that are more efficient and less costly.

Fortunately, farmers can improve their soil and increase its carbon content through such techniques as "no-till" farming, in which farm-seeding equipment inserts seeds into small cuts in the earth. Traditional tillage farming, or plowing, on the other hand, releases carbon into the atmosphere. No-till agriculture can cut costs in as little as two years and can even increase crop yields by up to 10 percent. It leaves leftover plant matter on the land, building the soil, and that added healthy soil acts as a sponge to lessen water runoff and prevents nutrients from entering rivers and lakes (which is what creates dead zones).

Responsible ecological conservation and restoration of non-farmland is crucial as well. Replanting native grasslands and restoring drained wetlands, forests, and savannas can also reduce water runoff and erosion of soils, and conserve and store carbon.

Land-use policies must change at the national level. Not only has poor land use resulted in habitat degradation, erosion, and the poisoning of our waters, it is a significant contributor to global warming. Yet in discussing measures to curb pollution and GHG emissions, the focus is invariably on the iconic symbols of fossil fuel technology -- smoking coal plants, gas-guzzling cars, and, obviously, offshore drilling.

Think again. From 2000 to 2005, 53 percent of existing GHG emissions were mitigated and stored in the surface soils and vegetation of our planet at no cost to us. This is one of the wonderful things that the right plants planted in the right location and way do for a living.

The National Carbon Reserve would combine the best of American ecological and conservation thought and practice with classic public-private market values and incentives, creating a model of carbon management tied to land protection and restoration and more productive agricultural management. Here are some specific strategies:

• Use a smart ecosystem service planning process to develop a policy roll-up of private and public conservation and agricultural lands (nearly all of which are already mapped and known) to guide soil rebuilding around simple principles to allow plants to do the work they do so well. This alone could provide profound cost savings by reducing irrigation water and fertilizer needs, improving crop yields and, oh, by the way, encouraging some of the most efficient carbon sequestration benefits imaginable.

• Create an incentivized, voluntary initiative in which participants can sell the value of improvements in soil carbon on the open market. The program's goals would be to rebuild soil carbon and organic matter in agricultural production and ranchlands and other lands, and to reduce stormwater runoff and erosion and increase water infiltration, replenishing declining potable ground water supplies in many areas of the U.S.

• Decouple the politics and economics of food from energy by encouraging more locally-produced, healthy-food grown with sustainable practices to balance our food supplies and reduce time and mileage in its travel from farm to table.

The Reserve's system of land-use planning to improve soil and water and to manage carbon would start mitigating GHG emissions quickly, while our economic, financial and policy systems move toward more sustainable energy sources. Progress on many of the issues raised here is being made at the local, state and federal levels and should be encouraged, but a national program remains critical.

This plan would, in the long term, help heal the Gulf, the Mississippi, and our other rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Ultimately, it could mitigate climate change -- healing earth, water and sky.

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