Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Iowa-the place where red snapper die?

Iowa—the place where red snapper die?

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone doesn’t just happen in the ocean, it starts upstream where people are careless with their use of the land. In places like Iowa, 35,000 feet straight below Alaska Airlines flight 2.

This is the place where nitrogen leaked, that fed the plankton, that fueled the bloom, that died and decayed, that sucked up the oxygen, that killed the red snapper, that ruined the Gulf of Mexico.

Far below, a grid of one mile sections as far as the eye can see. Water from farmlands, heading south to the Gulf of Mexico. Is somebody down there getting careless and spilling nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico? Is it Iowa? Or is it everyone? Is it simply the consequences of modern agriculture? Would we have to go back to the stone age to have a healthy ocean?

This brings to mind the lesson of Hank Bosma, a dairy farmer from the Yakima Valley, Washington who used to have a serious pollution habit. I got involved when Charlie Tebbutt with the Western Environmental Law Center asked me to look at some water quality monitoring data from the Yakima Valley, Washington state. Charlie asked whether monitoring data was likely to show what his clients believed, that a few bad dairymen were responsible for much of the waste polluting area streams. I told Charlie that I thought it was unlikely that monitoring data would implicate one or a few farmers. Boy was I wrong.

To make a long story short…most of the dairies were clean, and Bosma's dairy was very-very dirty. Monitoring the watershed every two weeks showed severe nitrogen plumes running downstream from Bosma's dairies.

A recent study says the same thing is true at a much larger scale, that a few locations in the Mississippi River basin are responsible for the great majority of the nitrogen that fuels the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. So there may be a solution, because it isn't everyone.

Flying from Washington to Washington (Seattle to DC), looking down at the Gulf of Mexico dead zone in Iowa, I don't think we have to go back to the stone age to have healthy red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. We just need to learn to farm right, and fish right.

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