Anybody who has ever been truly thirsty knows the value of clean water. And most of us know there’s a growing concern over supplies of it in in the U.S., which has the fastest growing population of any developed country on the planet. We are also experiencing a not-unrelated boom in agriculture that is changing the very face of the American landscape.
Our own vast Lake Erie is the current poster child for our concerns; the sickly and bedraggled canary in our watery coal mine. Beset with toxic algae blooms, dying fish, and fouled drinking water supplies, western Lake Erie is an expensive mess.
It hurts businesses on the lake and in surrounding communities, local property owners, and the taxpayers who have to deal with it. It is also a situation that is becoming all too common across the nation, and the world.
Luckily, we know what the primary problem is: phosphorous- and nitrogen-rich runoff from agriculture. Add to that some pet waste and fertilizers from lawns, toss in some leaky septic tanks in the floodplains of rivers and creeks, and garnish the stew with overwhelmed sewage treatment plants that have not kept up with population growth and which turn loose the stinking dragons of untreated waste during every flood.
Solutions are as obvious as they are elusive. You can ban the spreading of manure and other fertilizers on frozen ground and snow, which would take some mighty independent-thinking legislators, which are tough to find these days. You can sue farmers who misapply these fertilizers for the millions in damages caused by the algal blooms, a tedious and risky business that could take years and never reduce by one ounce the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen in Lake Erie and other waters. You can refuse to permit septic tanks or concentrated animal feeding operations in floodplains.
Again you’d need some of those hen’s teeth independent legislators, and it would be a battle. You can fight for state and federal money to upgrade wastewater and sewage treatment plants (the current estimate of untreated sewage released into our waterways each year is about 850 million gallons, a figure of which we should be ashamed).
But the first and best partial answer to the problem of polluted runoff? Buffers of thick vegetation that absorb fertilizers and other runoff. On January 16th, workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture presented a plan to offer $17.5 million to farmers in the regions of three states– Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio – that comprise the western Lake Erie watershed, with Ohio getting the lion’s share. The money will be used to plant cover crops along waterways, re-creating some of the filtration system that was once provided by forests, cattail swamps, and grasslands. The program is voluntary, but federal officials hope that enough farmers will take up the offer
to achieve at least a 39 percent reduction in the nutrients polluting Lake Erie, heading off the kind of toxic algae bloom that occurred in 2011. That one broke all records for size and intensity, shut down drinking water to 500,000 people, and cost Ohio’s recreational fishing industry about $2.4 million.
Similar plans are taking root across the nation, funded by federal dollars in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
The program will fund many projects, one of which is in the beleaguered watershed of the Chesapeake Bay. “The Delmarva Whole System Conservation Partnership — From Field to Stream” will allow farmers, communities, and timberland owners to conserve and restore natural buffers such as forests and wetlands to soak up and filter the runoff, which has been destroying the famed commercial oyster, crab, and recreational fisheries in the Bay for decades.
So how does this tie in with bird hunting? Well, the same buffers that absorb polluted runoff also make good bird “cover,” a commodity that has been shrinking in direct proportion to the agriculture boom that is fouling the waters and ruining our fisheries. In a potential triumph for both pragmatic water conservation and hunting, Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton has asked the legislature to enact a law requiring a 50-foot buffer protecting every stream, drainage ditch, and river in the state.
“I would propose that a 50-foot buffer be required on all riparian lands in Minnesota, and that 50-foot buffer be enforced, and I mean enforced,” Dayton told reporters. “I recognize that will not be well received by some landowners. To that, I say the land might be yours, but the water belongs to all of us.”
The solution emerged from a December 2014, “Pheasant Summit” that Dayton (a lifelong pheasant hunter) convened, bringing together state land managers, hunters and landowners to discuss the radical decline in pheasant numbers across the state.
One of the findings of the summit? The buffer rules already existed in Minnesota law, but they were rarely enforced. Only 18 percent of the state’s 485 waterways had the kind of buffers that are required by the existing law. Dayton’s proposal to the legislature to enforce the laws and restore the buffers would result in an estimated 125,000 acres of new pheasant cover, solving a whole herd of problems at once. Obviously, many farmers, farm lobbies, and legislators will oppose such enforcement, so many of the details, the funding, and the success of the proposal itself have yet to be worked out. But the plan is on the table, and the benefits, from reducing expensive and potentially catastrophic water pollution and floods, to creating safe habitat for the pollinators (bees and other insects) upon which the farmers depend, to a revival of the pheasant hunting and the economy and traditions it supports, are far too obvious to be ignored any longer.
American water issues, because they are so well understood, are challenges that can be addressed and solved. None of these issues exist in isolation- the farming practices that cause the pollution that shuts down the water supply for 500,000 people are the same practices that cause the loss of wildlife and birds and kills the fish in the rivers and lakes. Extra money is made by plowing the ground right up to the waters’ edge and by draining the swamps to plow them, too. Not paying for upgraded wastewater treatment plants saves money too. But it’s not exactly profit- the costs are just passed on, to water users downstream, or to those of us who can no longer find game to hunt, or fish to catch, and so never buy that shotgun or rod and reel from our local outdoor store. The embrace of failure and irresponsibility would be a betrayal of the hard work our parents and grandparents did to create the Clean Water Act and restore our wildlife and fisheries. It would mean the end of much of what we say we love. The solutions are clear, the paths to reach them, in many cases, as yet unexplored, a rich field for study and innovation and American entrepreneurs. Hunters and fishermen, as always, must take the lead.