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Excellent editorial by Ron Cunningham in today’s Gainesville Sun. Proposed Obama administration anti-pollution rules that would protect our water “…are being fought by members of Congress, many states and — surprise! — lobbying groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Fertilizer Institute.”
Continue reading below for the complete editorial followed by our comments. Our thanks to the Sun for permission to reproduce the op-ed in its entirety, and the original piece can be seen at this LINK:
Trading food for water quality is ultimately a fool’s bargainSpecial to The Sun
Published: Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 at 12:48 p.m.
It’s almost like we’ve made a deal with the devil.
Give us cheap food, we told Beelzebub, and we’ll take putrid water in the bargain.
Oh yeah, and green water isn’t too much to ask in return for keeping our lawns nice and green as well.
What’s wrong with green anyway? Heck, on St. Patrick’s Day they dye the Chicago River a nice shade of emerald.
But they weren’t toasting St. Pat in Toledo when half a million residents were told not to drink their tap water because it had been poisoned by the thick green algae blooms in Lake Erie.
It was certainly no cause to cheer last year when manatee fatalities were at a record high thanks to toxic algae (of the red variety) in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.
Of late, algae blooms have grow so large that we’ve taken to comparing them to states.
The “dead zone” where the Mississippi River surges into the Gulf of Mexico was said to be the size of New Jersey. The massive red tide that is creeping south along the Gulf Coast of Florida — snuffing out marine life and threatening the summer beach business — is reputed to be two Rhode Islands big.
With Toledo and the Gulf grabbing all the algae headlines it’s easy to overlook record fish kills and “mystery foam” outbreaks in the nearby St. Johns River.
“Scientists believe the fish kill is due to, in part, the algal blooms,” St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon wrote in a letter published in the Florida Times-Union. “Also, theories are linking the foam with the algal blooms or fish kills.”
Of course, algae blooms are a “natural” occurrence, all the news stories say so. The stuff thrives in warm, shallow waters. Which is why Florida is where algae goes for its summer vacation.
But the contributing factors that are these days fueling algae blooms to state-sized proportions are largely man-made: Climate change is keeping water warmer longer. Nutrient runoff — the byproduct of farming, poorly maintained septic tanks and the American obsession with perfect lawns — helps create a perfect chemical soup for brewing algae by the batch. And a lot of wetlands that once acted as natural water purification systems have been drained and turned into runoff conduits — subdivisions, parking lots and condos.
As for our deal with the devil. The trade-off we’ve made for cheap, abundant food in exchange for dirty water was illustrated in a disturbing National Geographic article last year titled “Fertilized World.”
Thanks to the wonders of “modern chemistry,” the world now uses more than 100 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer a year. “Without it, human civilization in its current form could not exist,” National Geographic reports. “Our planet’s soil simply could not grow enough food to provide all 7 billion of us our accustomed diet.
“Yet this modern miracle exacts a price. Runaway nitrogen is suffocating wildlife in lakes and estuaries, contaminating groundwater, and even warming the globe’s climate. As a hungry world looks ahead to billions more mouths needing nitrogen-rich protein, how much clean water and air will survive our demand for fertile fields?”
That’s the critical question. Because like all deals with the devil, trading life-giving food for life-sustaining water is ultimately a fool’s bargain.
Sustainable farming practices that minimize fertilizer use exist, but there are few incentives — and even fewer mandates — to persuade farmers to adopt them. “We need to make precise use of fertilizer the rule instead of the exception. And we need to rebuild wetlands and buffers while allowing farmers to meet food and fiber demands,” Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund, says on that group’s website. “Then we can make a real difference in water quality in the United States.”
A good start would be to expand the authority of the federal Clean Water Act to enforce anti-pollution standards in millions of acres of wetlands, and thousands of streams, lakes and rivers that are not now covered. But proposed Obama administration rules that would do just that are being fought by members of Congress, many states and — surprise! — lobbying groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Fertilizer Institute.
Those are the “job-killing” regulations we’re always hearing about. Green money trumps green water every time.
Plan B? Well, there’s always the Chicago River Solution. Dye Lake Erie and the St. Johns River blue.
That’ll give Beelzebub a good laugh.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun. The conflict between water quality/conservation and agriculture is just now appearing in the limelight. The cultural mindset is and has traditionally been that agriculture precludes all other needs, since we need food. Now that we see that agriculture is limiting our clean water by fertilizer contaminants and by reducing the available supply below what is acceptable, we must come to an agreement on new limitations. We are slowly beginning to realize that we also need clean water as well as food.
This will not be an easy resolution, as neither side wants to concede, but compromises must and will be reached, as we all basically want and need the same thing.