“It’s getting worse” – US failing to stem tide of harmful farm pollutants

By Keith Schneider

VENICE, LA. Kindra Arnesen is a 46-year-old commercial fishing boat operator who has spent most of her life among the pelicans and bayous of southern Louisiana, near the juncture where the 2,350-mile-long Mississippi River ends at the Gulf of Mexico.

Clark Porter is a 62-year-old farmer who lives in north-central Iowa where he spends part of his day working as an environmental specialist for the state and the other part raising corn and soybeans on hundreds of acres that his family has owned for over a century.

Though they’ve never met, and live 1,100 miles apart, Arnesen and Porter share a troubling kinship – both of their communities are tied to a deepening water pollution crisis that is fouling the environment and putting public health in peril across multiple US states.

Arnesen’s home lies near an oxygen-depleted expanse of the northern Gulf known as the “dead zone,” where dying algae blooms triggered by contaminants flowing out of the Mississippi River choke off oxygen, suffocating shrimp and other marine life.

Porter’s farm is positioned at the center of the Upper Mississippi River Basin where streams and other surface waters saturated with farm wastes flood into the big river, and contaminated groundwater permeates drinking water wells. Cancer incidence in Iowa is among the nation’s highest, and is rising.

The culprit at the center of it all is a colossal tide of fertilizer and animal manure that runs off fields in Iowa and other farm states to find its way into the Mississippi River. The same agricultural pollution problems are plaguing other iconic US waterways, including Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie.

US farmers use more fertilizer and spread more manure than in most other countries, accounting for roughly 10% of global fertilizer use, behind China and India. But while the nutrients contained in animal manure and fertilizer are known to nourish crop growth, the resulting nitrogen and phosphorous that end up in waterways are known to create severe health problems for people.

A grand government plan to address the problem has cost taxpayers billions of dollars with minimal results so far, and nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in the Mississippi River Basin.

The reasons for the persistent pollution problem are multi-fold, including strong industry opposition to regulations to control the farm contaminants, and a perverse system in which some government programs incentivize farming practices that add to the pollution even as other government programs try to induce farmers to reduce the pollution.

“You’re talking about systemic dysfunction,” said Matt Liebman, professor emeritus of agronomy and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University.