Guest Columnist

An ag challenge on water quality

Lime Creek runs through Rowley on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Dick Sloan's farm is part of the Lime Creek and Bear Creek watersheds, which feed the Cedar River. Sloan has implemented no-till farming, cover crops, filter strips and grassed waterways on his 800 acre farm as part of the Lime Creek Watershed Project, in an effort to reduce nutrient runoff. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Lime Creek runs through Rowley on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Dick Sloan's farm is part of the Lime Creek and Bear Creek watersheds, which feed the Cedar River. Sloan has implemented no-till farming, cover crops, filter strips and grassed waterways on his 800 acre farm as part of the Lime Creek Watershed Project, in an effort to reduce nutrient runoff. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

As I savored my morning coffee, thoughts wandered to people I admire. Perhaps my coffee’s water once passed through Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, or even Jesus.

Water, like air, is a miraculous substance required by living creatures yet owned by none. It sustains plant and animal life as it flows through the earth’s circulation system, constantly being reused in a never ending cycle. As a consumer I respect and enjoy water and return it to it’s natural cycle unsullied so others can benefit from its magical life giving properties.

Our society doesn’t treat water with respect. Pure rainwater enters rivers and the ground carrying nitrogen, phosphorus, silt, and a host of chemicals. Downstream people inherit this contaminated stew. They must pay for expensive nitrogen removal by water departments, while kids can’t swim in algae-choked lakes. Farther downstream, Gulf of Mexico shrimpers face economic hardship because farm belt pollution causes a dead zone where shrimp and other species can’t live.

Ironically, downstream taxpayers fund subsidies received by farmers who cause their woes. Receiving the gift of clean rain and discharging it laced with pollutants is unfair, unethical, and immoral. It’s disrespectful to the earth and fellow humans.

Farm groups advocate the voluntary capture of pollutants. Some farmers have made remarkable progress retaining nitrogen, phosphorus, and soil on their land. But, anyone driving through the country sees why water pollution is increasing. Despite depressed commodity prices farmers are ripping out every patch of trees and grass that might grab nitrogen. Some even illegally mow public road ditches like lawns. The landscape is increasingly a biological desert supporting only corn and soybeans sustained by chemicals.

If voluntary measures were working kids could swim in lakes, towns wouldn’t need to remove nitrogen from drinking water, and the Dead Zone in the Gulf would be shrinking. Unfortunately it’s getting worse.

Before the passage of the Clean Water Act much water pollution originated with industry and municipal sewage. Called point pollution, it entered rivers from a pipe coming from a factory or sewer. Regulation resulted in significant point pollution reduction. Lake Erie, for example, had been a toxic mess. Now, it supports a healthy walleye fishery.

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Nonpoint pollution, in contrast, is runoff that doesn’t originate at a single source. Rather, it flows over the land or oozes through soil, picking up contaminants until reaching streams or the water table.

The Obama era Waters of the United States program was meant to address nonpoint pollution by placing small tributaries under Federal control. It was aggressively and successfully resisted by modern agriculture, which prefers voluntary action to capture pollutants.

I understand why farmers disdain regulation. They face economic challenges and no one wants to be told what to do. But, their efforts to avoid Federal oversight may be self defeating. Political winds shift. If pollution continues to increase it’s only a matter of time before the Gulf seafood industry politically unites with municipal water departments and recreationists to pressure politicians to force land use change and shift pollution’s cost to those who cause it, rather than downstream recipients.

I’d prefer voluntary pollution abatement if the results were significant. History has not shown this to happen. I appreciate farmers who retain nitrogen on their land and challenge others to follow suit and not inflict harm on the environment or people living downstream. It is the ethical and moral thing to do.

• Rich Patterson of Cedar Rapids is a member of the National Circle of Conservation Chiefs.

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