Water Pollution Blamed On Farmers

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A news release from Cornell University puts the blame on farmers for water pollution and dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico in the lead sentence. “If you want to grow a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, you first need to plant a seed in the rich farmland of the upper Mississippi River basin,” starts the news release.

A team of scientists from Cornell University and University of Illinois-Urbana “found that tile drainage systems in upper Mississippi farmlands—from southwest Minnesota to Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio—are the biggest contributors of nitrogen runoff into the Gulf,” the scientists claimed in a summary of a study they conducted.

Now, here is the part that every farmer will agree with completely from the summary. It is a quote from one of the study’s co-authors. “Given the pivotal role of tile drainage in transporting fertilizer nitrogen from agricultural fields to streams and rivers, we need to consider some form of regulation if we expect to reverse hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Laurie Drinkwater, associate professor of horticulture, Cornell University.

The researchers claim to have appropriately calculated nitrate concentrations to show the contribution of nitrates from crops and livestock production as well as human populations. I am one to question if they really did a good job of figuring all the nitrate and other pollution going into our streams and rivers from population centers with their “computer modeling.” Populations in cities are increasing and with it more suburban yards treated with fertilizer and pesticides, streets treated with salts and deicers, street drainage of all types of polluters and sewage systems that are antiquated or operating at volumes over their design specifications.

I know that the debate about nitrates and pollution of the Chesapeake Bay has been a bone of contention for decades, but in recent years recognition of the non-farming population’s contribution to water pollution has increased.

The biggest worry that seems to be in the Cornell and University of Illinois study is a recommendation for more mandatory regulation. This could eventually mean 1,000 pages of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines with fines for not abiding by rules interpreted by non-farming background bureaucrats.

As the news release summarizes, most of what the university professors and researchers contend should be done by farmers makes sense, such as establishing wetlands to filter tile drainage water and fertilizing fields in the spring instead of the fall.

But I attended a program in Iowa last year that showed the value of tile drainage systems for improving crop production and encouraging farmers to tile more farmland. The encouragement of tiling was being conducted across the Midwest and had the support of university Extension programs in each state. It almost seems like two different groups of land grant university professors saying opposite things.

I’m sure this latest study won’t just be filed away without environmental groups using it to justify lawsuits, approach members of Congress and the EPA for new regulations and basically harass farmers even more.

By Richard Keller, AgProfessional editor



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