Agriculture on Trial

We take a lot of things for granted. From the air we breathe to the water we drink to the earth beneath our feet, most of us operate under the assumption that these life necessities will always be here, nearly free for use and always clean. Yet that simply isn’t the case—especially when it comes to our drinking water.

The majority of people in the U.S. operate under the assumption that their drinking water is pristine, when in reality, it’s not. But, It is, however, much cleaner now than it once was. Take Indiana’s White River for example. In 2011, close to 80 percent of the Upper White River Watershed was tainted with E. coli (fecal contamination) and a 2012 analysis by Environment America—a nonprofit federation of state-based environmental advocacy organizations— found that Indiana dumped more pollutants into its waterways than any other state in the entire country. Ouch! Add to that nearly a century of industrial waste from oil refineries, canneries, meatpacking plants and other factories and it’s no wonder the river has a reputation for being dirty and unhealthy for human recreation. But hey, I don’t want to just pick on Indiana because thankfully, many of these harmful practices are no longer acceptable and Hoosiers have made great strides to clean up the river running through their backyards.

The White River is the leading contributor of nitrogen to the Wabash within Indiana, which is the second highest contributor of nitrogen to the entire Mississippi Basin.” ~ Mike Dunn, director of Indiana Freshwater Conservation Programs

Nutrients Are Not Nutritious 

Nutrients (found in fertilizers)—nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium among others—might be beneficial for some crops, but they’re not good for water (or for human consumption). In fact, they don’t provide any kind of nourishment to the plants and animals in or around a body of water. They do feed one of the world’s largest dead zones—an oxygen-free area the size of Connecticut. Located at the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, nothing can grow or live in the oxygen-deprived area, causing a nearly $1 billion economic disruption to the Gulf’s fishing industry, let alone the environmental impact. And the biggest contributor to the growth of the Gulf’s dead zone is toxins from agricultural runoff.

So what’s being done to prevent this type of polution? One of the strategies being implemented is the removal of marginal farmlands from production—those lying in floodplains—and restoring the land to natural habitats. And many farmers, says The Nature Conservancy’s Matt Smith, are on board because the government pays them to do so as part of its Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program. The program, funded by the Conservancy and the USDA, promotes the conversion of these farmlands back to wetlands, thus significantly reducing the amount of nutrients entering the river. Their goal: a 20 percent reduction of nutrients entering the Mississippi basin by 2025.

The agriculture sector, including CAFOs, is the leading contributor of pollutants to lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. —The National Association of Local Boards of Health

Agriculture on Trial

But there are other contributors to the pollution in our rivers. Nutrients are an issue, but so are the toxins created by massive quantities of decomposing animal manure found on large-scale farms.

“Animal manure contains parasites that are toxic to humans,” says Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. And as large quantities of waste, like those found on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), begin to decompose, they release air emissions, many of which are extremely dangerous to humans. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, states with high concentrations of CAFOs experience on average 20 to 30 serious water quality problems per year as a result of manure management problems.

Earlier this year, Frank testified before the Indiana General Assembly stating that CAFOs affect our overall health by spreading (through both air and water) disease-causing bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli, all found on many livestock farms. She was one of many who testified in support of Indiana House Bill 1328. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Representative Sue Errington (D-Muncie), and Representative Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville), calls for action to, among other things, “safeguard our lakes, rivers and streams by requiring CAFOs to adhere to waste management plans and by prohibiting new construction or expansion of CAFOs in floodplains, karst terrain, and other sensitive areas.” The bill failed, but Representative Errington says she hopes to reintroduce similar legislation next session.

Volunteer Conservation

In the meantime, throughout the country, state agriculture departments are diligently working to promote voluntary conservation through various initiatives like the federal government’s Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program and Clear Choices Clean Water campaign. Supported by sponsorship from a variety of individuals, businesses, government agencies and civic groups, the campaign works to educate individuals to make better choices when it comes to water use. Landscaping with native plants, using less fertilizer, managing yard and pet wastes, maintaining septic systems, fostering soil health and using less water all help to preserve and protect our water sources. Clear Choices Clean Water encourages people to take personal action to do the little things that combine to make a big difference in the health of our streams, lakes and rivers. Visit and take the pledge to start, or continue, good behaviors that make a difference for water quality and for water conservation.

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