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Column: Dirty Water

Last year, I wrote an article for a magazine and it was never published. I don’t know why –maybe it wasn’t good enough, maybe it didn’t fit in with the other articles, or maybe the publication had plans to use it down the road sometime. That decision is above my pay grade AND the check cleared the bank, so it’s not really my problem.
The article was about how farmers have a dirt problem. A couple of hundred years ago, the entire Midwest was covered in grass 5 feet tall, with a tangled mass of roots going 10 feet into the ground. Erosion wasn’t a huge issue, and neither were fertilizers and chemicals leaching into the water.
Times change. Now, all that grass is gone, replaced by giant fields farmed as intensively as we know how.
Modern agriculture is an incredible thing. When farming was first discovered/invented, roughly 12,000 years ago, scientists estimate there were around 10 million people on the entire planet. We hit a billion people around 1800, and now there are 7 billion of us crowding this little ball of dirt. All those folks have to eat. The fact that there is still enough food in the world (that we live in a place where a famine is the result of government incompetence instead of actual shortage) is a stunning achievement.
There is a significant downside. While our air is largely cleaned of pollution and factories are carefully monitored for what they put in the water, as farmers, we’ve been allowed to do pretty much whatever we want. That’s caused some issues. Half the lakes in southern Minnesota are considered unswimmable, there’s a dead zone of 6,000 square miles at the mouth of the Mississippi, and millions of dollars need to be spent every year cleaning silt from ditches and rivers.
So, it’s a thing.
There are several ways to address this problem. Last week, I read a news article that said the Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit against three Iowa counties. The suit, which is coming to trial, says that all the nitrates in the river are placing an undue burden on the Water Works and the taxpayers of Des Moines, because it’s getting so expensive to clean up the water. Attorneys for the counties are denying that they are at fault.
That’s kind of their job. In law school, they teach you not to admit anything and that works – except when it doesn’t. For instance, malpractice lawsuits drop dramatically when doctors and hospitals admit their mistakes, apologize, and explain what they’re doing to ensure the same mistake doesn’t happen again. So, there are different ways to handle conflict.
Outside Madison, Wisconsin, people living in the Yahara River Watershed are pooling their resources to keep phosphorus and nitrogen on the land and out of the river. Farmers sign a contract and then get financial help in installing a variety of practices. Over 20 years, the project is going to cost roughly $100 million, which is a lot of money, but only about a third as much as it would cost to run water treatment plants round the clock to clean up the fouled water.
It’ll be interesting to see which is more productive: the lawsuit in Iowa where people are already digging in their heels and digging trenches or the cooperative approach in Wisconsin where people admit there’s a problem and work together on the solutions.
Copyright 2016 Brent Olson

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