Alan Guebert: Corporations Have Rights; Why Not a Lake?

Farm & Food File:

If the ballot box is the ultimate source of power in the United States, then voters in Toledo, Ohio, used that power Feb. 26 to create what’s now being called a “Bill of Rights” for their wide, blue neighbor, Lake Erie. That vote, if it withstands court challenges (one was filed immediately after the referendum passed) gives any Toledo citizen legal standing to sue any person or corporation on behalf of Lake Erie over its “right” to be clean and environmentally healthy.

Lake Erie’s newly conferred/newly challenged rights have farmers in northwest Ohio deeply concerned because they have long been seen as a key source of the phosphorus run-off that fuels late-summer, toxic algae blooms in the lake, that also serves as Toledo’s public water source. But it’s not just Toledo. The toxic blooms, according to press reports, threaten the water supply of 12 million American and Canadian citizens living near Lake Erie and jeopardize more than $1 billion a year spent in Ohio on lake tourism.

Stephanie Hemphill: Farmers Reducing Phosphorus Runoff


Why exactly does Green Bay need saving? Because it suffers from too much phosphorus, which contributes to Cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae. Around the world, these bacteria are turning water a disgusting shade of green and other colors, and producing poisons that can sicken people and kill animals. And when the algae die off they can rob oxygen from other life in the water, killing fish and other aquatic life.

Around Green Bay, several small streams carry excess nutrients from farm fields into the bay and eventually into Lake Michigan. One of them, Silver Creek, is the focus of a pilot project designed to answer a crucial question: Can farmers reduce their pollution enough to help the bay, while remaining profitable? The project lies within the boundaries of the Oneida reservation, and more than half the land is owned by the tribe, which leases a lot of land to non-tribal growers...

Five years in a pilot program isn’t much time to clean up a stream, but the ultimate goal of adaptive management is to bring Silver Creek up to the state’s water quality standard for phosphorus. NEW Water says the project has cost US$1 million dollars annually over the last four years. That’s a lot cheaper than US$100 million for a new treatment plant. And how well is it all working?

The project promises to provide extensive data about how well various agricultural practices work to reduce polluted farm runoff. The weekly samples from five monitors along Silver Creek provide baseline measurements from the year before the BMPs started. This is not as precise as more expensive continuous monitoring would be, but it offers more experimental rigor than most studies can provide.

Those five monitors continue to track water quality. So far, the results are mixed. In 2016, three of the monitors showed phosphorus reductions, one stayed essentially the same and one showed a slight increase. In 2017 the area was drenched with what felt like endless rainfall, soaking the fields and making them more vulnerable to runoff. The phosphorus numbers went up, but not to levels seen pre-BMPs. “I was very happy to see that even with a very wet year we never even approached the concentrations we saw before we started installing these best management practices,” NEW Water’s Erin Houghton says.

Mark Schapiro: Uphill Battle for Clean Water in Corn Country

Yale E360:

“Health trumps politics,” said Iowa State Senator David Johnson before taking the stage at a raucous rally in Des Moines last winter to support strengthening the state’s water quality. In the marble rotunda of the state capitol, he rose to denounce the nitrogen and phosphates that have been flowing in ever-increasing quantities into Iowa’s public water supplies — and was cheered by the small crowd of family farmers, concerned mothers, and his new political allies, the legislature’s drastically outnumbered Democrats. Johnson had been one of the longest-serving Republicans in Iowa until he left the party to become an independent in 2016 after defying it repeatedly on one of the most divisive issues in Iowa — the integrity of the state’s water.

Iowa’s nitrogen load has been accelerating despite more than $100 million spent by the federal and state governments to rein it in. Starting in 1999, the concentration of nitrogen in the state’s major waterways has increased almost 50 percent, according to a study from the University of Iowa, published last spring in PLOS One. The battle over Iowa’s water had long been posed as one between rural and urban interests, until Johnson, whose district is one of the most thinly populated and heavily farmed in the state, came along...

More than 750, or 58 percent, of the state’s rivers and streams do not meet federal water quality standards and are designated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as too contaminated for swimming or consuming fish caught there — making a state once renowned for its lattice of waterways into a mess of inaccessible creeks, streams and lakes. Another 23 percent fall into a category of being “potentially impaired,” which the state defines as, “waters in need of further investigation.” Ninety-two percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of phosphates in the state’s waterways, says the DNR, come from farms and animal feedlots.

Lee Bergquist: Water Wars on the Sand Counties of Wisconsin

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Two articles on groundwater and lakes

War Over Water

In 2010, Minnesota lawmakers passed legislation giving that state’s DNR the authority to establish groundwater protection areas that allow the agency to limit water use to meet human needs and protect lakes, streams and wetlands.

After three years of review, the first protection area was designated in November 2015 in metropolitan St. Paul — an area that runs to the Wisconsin border. Two other areas have been identified in rural areas of Minnesota.

In Wisconsin, with Kraft’s work being questioned and environmentalists pressing for action, the DNR and the growers association underwrote a two-year, $230,000 study of the Little Plover.

In April, the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey found that groundwater played a key role in the health of the Little Plover; the river was vulnerable to groundwater pumping; and that stream flows would improve substantially if wells nearest the river were removed.

The study “did not refute the work of Dr. Kraft — if anything, it built on that work,” said Ken Bradbury, director of the state natural history survey and co-author of the study.

But Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the potato and vegetable group, said his industry isn’t convinced, although he says growers near the Little Plover have voluntarily changed their farming and irrigation practices to conserve water.
Water Policy

Plainfield — Three years after Brian Wolf bought his home on Long Lake in 2006, lawmakers and water policy experts began stopping by to see what had happened to the lake.

”It’s as if someone pulled the plug in a bathtub,” Wolf told one group of visitors in November 2009. “This lake is dead.”

Legislators left Wolf’s home in western Waushara County with plans to address growing worries about high-capacity wells and the effect groundwater pumping was having on lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.

But lawmakers tried and failed to pass a groundwater bill in the 2010 legislative session. This year, legislative efforts also went nowhere.

This summer, the water in Long Lake is mostly gone, dotted by a few marshy areas. Cattails and grasses sprout from the former lake bed. Other traditionally shallow lakes in this region of sandy soil in the middle of the state have shared similar fates.

A dock on Long Lake near Coloma is surrounded by weeds. The lake has seen its water levels plummet and has become a marsh. Landowners blame the large number of high-capacity wells used to irrigate crops in the region.

They have become symbols of the tug-of-war over water use in Wisconsin. The advantage has shifted to large water users as the number of high-capacity wells have proliferated and efforts to put more limits on the use of groundwater have foundered.

Steven Elbow: Lake Conservation Can't Keep Up with Pollution Increases

Cap Times:

A new report says that a 14-year effort to clean up Lake Mendota couldn’t keep up with increasing amounts of phosphorous streaming from the watershed.

The study from the Water Sustainability and Climate Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says a 14-year effort to clean up Lake Mendota failed because of changes in farming, land development and climate change.

“There’s been a lot of tremendous work and effort to at least stay on the treadmill,” said co-author Eric Booth, a Climate Project researcher. “The problem is the treadmill keeps getting faster and faster with these other unaccounted for drivers of change.”

The result is that increasing efforts have slowed but not improved the decline of the lakes.

The report is specific to Lake Mendota, but could have implications worldwide as communities elsewhere try to tackle similar problems.

1. More information here and here!

2. In a world with increasing human population and exploitation demands, conservation will at best be a Red Queen Race. We know this to be true, but we don't dare say it because it is too unpleasant for most.

Mitch Smith: Conflict between Farm and City Water

New York Times:

The flat, endless acres of black dirt here in northern Iowa will soon be filled with corn and soybean seeds. But as farmers tuned up their tractors and waited for the perfect moment to plant, another topic weighed on their minds: a lawsuit filed in federal court by the state’s largest water utility.

After years of mounting frustration, the utility, Des Moines Water Works, sued the leaders of three rural Iowa counties last month. Too little has been done, the lawsuit says, to prevent nitrates from flowing out of farm fields into the Raccoon River and, eventually, into the drinking water supply for roughly 500,000 Iowans. The suit seeks to make farmers comply with federal clean-water standards for nitrates that apply to factories and commercial users, and requests unspecified damages.

No price signals to farmers for their export of pollution downstream, so other legal means are being explored to address degraded water quality,

Wendell Berry: As Farmers Fade, Who Will Care for the American Landscape?

Wendy Berry, writing for the Atlantic:

CJ Buckwalker, Flickr

CJ Buckwalker, Flickr

The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our cultural goal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.

This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.

Read more. If you read anything today read this, then read more from Wendell Berry... 

Farmers Need to Plant Cover Crops to Reduce Nitrogen Pollution

Dan Charles, reporting for NPR:

Paul Jasa/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Paul Jasa/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Here’s the bigger picture, Carlson says: During the summer, when crops are growing on those fields, they scarf up most of the soil’s available nitrate. The plants need it to grow. And as a result, during that period, there’s usually not much nitrate flowing into streams and rivers.

”Our problem is, we only grow plants for five months out of the year,” she says.

Most Midwestern farmers grow corn and soybeans, which are warm-season plants. And after they’re harvested, for seven long months, from fall until the following spring, nitrate continues to form naturally in the soil. It can be released from decaying plant roots or from microbes, “and if there’s nothing to suck it up, to scavenge it, then it’s going to move,” Carlson says.

Rainfall and melting snow will carry it downstream to Des Moines and beyond. It damages wildlife and fisheries all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Many other rivers and estuaries suffer from similar problems.

We won’t fix this mess by using less fertilizer, Carlson says. “The way to fix this is, we need to have something growing from October to May.”

Sauk River Chain of Lakes Face Pollution

Kirsti Marohn, reporting for the St. Cloud Times:

Kimm Anderson, St. Cloud Times

Kimm Anderson, St. Cloud Times

An active watershed district and lake association have taken ambitious steps to curb pollution entering the lakes. By most accounts, the lakes’ clarity has vastly improved and fish are more abundant. “The condition of the chain was dramatically worse water quality than it currently is,” said Greg Van Eeckhout, environmental specialist with the MPCA.

But the chain still faces many challenges. It’s fed by the Sauk River, which drains a huge area of largely agricultural land. Most of the chain’s lakes are considered impaired because of high nutrient levels. Algae blooms still make the water murky at times. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is proposing new standards for the lake that would aim to reduce those nutrient levels and improve the clarity of the water. But one environmental group says the standards are too lenient.

As the debate over the Sauk Chain’s future heats up, nearly everyone seems to agree that much progress has been made in the past few decades.

If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are … a different game you should play. Change standards without changing system, skeptical we are.

Agricultural Runoff is Polluting the Lake

Tom Henry, reporting for The Blade:

Jeff Reutter, the Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory director, frequently makes this point to groups hearing any one of the dozens of presentations he makes each year: More than two-thirds of today’s phosphorus in western Lake Erie comes from agricultural runoff. In the 1960s, more than two-thirds of it came from poor sewage treatment...

While people in Toledo may think of Lake Erie water quality as a sewage or factory issue, it is increasingly an agricultural land-use issue. The Maumee River watershed — the largest and the most important for western Lake Erie — is 73 percent agricultural land, Ms. Johnson said.

Mr. Reutter and other officials have been part of a state task force studying the phosphorus problem, which — to no one’s surprise — generally has been trending upward since 1995, when the first major bloom of toxic microcystis algae was detected in western Lake Erie since the 1970s.

One exception was during the drought of 2012. That, according to Mr. Reutter, only amplifies the strong correlation between agricultural runoff and western Lake Erie algae. In its latest report, the task force called for a 40 percent reduction in farm runoff.

Powerful the agricultural interests have become, the dark side I sense in them.

Lake Erie is Polluted

Behind Toledo’s Water Crisis, a Long-Troubled Lake Erie
By Michael Wines, The New York Times:

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

It took a serendipitous slug of toxins and the loss of drinking water for a half-million residents to bring home what scientists and government officials in this part of the county have been saying for years: Lake Erie is in trouble, and getting worse by the year.

Flooded by tides of phosphorus washed from fertilized farms, cattle feedlots and leaky septic systems, the most intensely developed of the Great Lakes is increasingly being choked each summer by thick mats of algae, much of it poisonous. What plagues Toledo and, experts say, potentially all 11 million lakeside residents, is increasingly a serious problem across the United States.

But while there is talk of action — and particularly in Ohio, real action — there also is widespread agreement that efforts to address the problem have fallen woefully short. And the troubles are not restricted to the Great Lakes. Poisonous algae are found in polluted inland lakes from Minnesota to Nebraska to California, and even in the glacial-era kettle ponds of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

If you don't advance new pollution control efforts now — if you choose the quick and easy path — you will become an agent of darkness.

About 20% of China's Agricultural Land is Polluted

Lily Kuo, writing in Quartz:

Almost one-fifth of China’s farmland is polluted, according to a government report released this week. Officials have acknowledged the country’s problems with water and air pollution, but the extent of soil contamination has been a closely guarded “state secret,” for fear of incriminating certain provinces or companies.

About 19.4% of China’s farmland is polluted by cadmium, nickel and arsenic, according to the seven-year study that analyzed a little over half of China’s entire land area. One-fifth of China’s total arable land is about 26 million hectares (64 million acres), the same area as the United Kingdom, by the most recent estimates.


Blind we are, if the negative consequences of weak environmental regulations we could not see. Always two there are, no more, no less: greed and pollution.

Lake Champlain Cleanup Plan

Beth Garbitelli, writing for the Associated Press:

Lynn Gardner

Lynn Gardner

Vermont officials posted online a hefty plan Tuesday to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain from stormwater runoff, and now await word on whether it goes far enough in addressing federal concerns.

Decades of runoff have contributed to dirtying Vermont’s signature lake and causing excessive algae growth. The pollution has turned the water murky, hurt tourism, depressed property values and increased water treatment costs.

Cleaning up the lake has been a longstanding state goal, but lawmakers and officials say the state is under more pressure now to meet federal targets. If the latest plan doesn’t measure up, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could impose expensive regulations on sewage plants in the state.

Bring plan here. Question it we will. 

Wendell Berry: A Strong Voice For Local Farming and the Land

Interview with Wendell Berry by Yale Environment 360:

e360: I’ve heard you describing the difference between optimism and hope, and you said that in terms of the issues you really care about, you would not describe yourself as optimistic but as hopeful. Can you explain that?

Berry: The issue of hope is complex and the sources of hope are complex. The things hoped for tend to be specific and to imply an agenda of work, things that can be done. Optimism is a general program that suggests that things are going to come out swell, pretty much whether we help out or not. This is largely unjustified by circumstances and history. One of the things that I think people on my side of these issues are always worried about is the ready availability of cynicism, despair, nihilism — those things that really are luxuries that permit people to give up, relax about the problems. Relax and let them happen. Another thing that can bring that about is so-called objectivity — the idea that this way might be right but on the other hand the opposite way might be right. We find this among academic people pretty frequently — the idea that you don’t take a stand, you just talk about the various possibilities.

But our side requires commitment, it requires effort, it requires a continual effort to define and understand what is possible — not only what is desirable, but what is possible in the immediate circumstances.
Photo by David Marshall

Photo by David Marshall

Read more Wendell Berry is a good resolution.

Fertilizer Limits Sought Near Lake Erie to Fight Spread of Algae

Michael Wines, reporting for the New York Times:

A United States-Canadian agency called on Wednesday for swift and sweeping limits on the use of fertilizer around Lake Erie to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering the water and creating a vast blanket of algae each summer, threatening fisheries, tourism and even drinking water.

In a report on the algae problem, the agency, the International Joint Commission, said that fertilizer swept by rains from farms and lawns was a major source of phosphorus in the lake. It recommended that crop insurance be tied to farmers’ adoption of practices that limit fertilizer runoff, and that Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania ban most sales of phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers.

Other States have banned phosphorus lawn fertilizers, and the evidence is that such bans are effective in protecting water quality.

Forget Golf Courses: Subdivisions Draw Residents With Farms

Luke Runyon, reporting for NPR:

Farms — complete with livestock, vegetables and fruit trees — are serving as the latest suburban amenity.

It’s called development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture — a farm-share program commonly known as CSA. In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production — a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park — that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

”These projects are becoming more and more mainstream,” says Ed McMahon, a fellow with the Urban Land Institute. He estimates that more than 200 developments with an agricultural twist already exist nationwide.

This appears to be an interesting trend. Will existing subdivisions be redeveloped with the inclusion of small farms? Given their density, subdivisions are still dependent on cheap energy for transportation -- a clear Achilles' heel.

Madison's lakes are 'impaired' by runoff-driven weeds and algae, state says

Steven Verburg, reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal:

The state will add Dane County’s chain of lakes to its list of “impaired waters” because of heavy nutrient pollution from surrounding farmland that causes unnatural weed growth and nasty-smelling algae blooms, state officials said Friday.

Dane County officials expressed concern that the listing of the four Yahara lakes — Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa — might upset or undermine extensive cleanup efforts already underway in cooperation with local farmers. It would be the first time the lakes landed on the state list because of nutrient pollution.

Don't you have to call a spade a spade?

Pinellas lake pollution to cost unincorporated residents

Anne Phillips, reporting for the Tampa Bay Times:


Lake Tarpon and Lake Seminole are extreme examples of costly restoration projects in Pinellas, but some commissioners say they are hearing a growing number of complaints about other polluted lakes and creeks. And the County Commission is awakening to the realization that reversing decades of fertilizer runoff and drainage problems is going to be expensive.

About a third of US rivers contaminated with agricultural runoff

Scott K. Johnson, reporting for Ars Technica:

A new survey of streams and rivers, performed by the EPA, provides a greater sense of the scale of the challenge. While industrial pollution, like mercury, remains a concern, agricultural runoff, in the form of sediment and fertilizers, is now far more widespread.

This use of land as large unintended consequences.