Friday, August 8, 2014

The choice is clean water or green glop

     Clean drinking water is taken for granted in the United States. Last week, however, residents of Toledo, Ohio, discovered what can best be described as green glop coming from their taps. Soon, they may not be alone in that discovery.

     Toledo gets its water from Lake Erie, part of the world’s largest freshwater system. This shallowest of the Great Lakes experiences an algae bloom each summer. Those blooms first reached crisis levels in the 1960s. Following passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, cities and commercial users began to control pollutants. The blooms shrank. In the 1990s, however, progress reversed. Now the blooms are back at crisis levels.

     Farming, especially corporate farming, was largely untouched by the Clean Water Act, and phosphorous is one of the major components of the chemicals widely used by agribusiness. Chemical runoff enters the rivers that fill Lake Erie and the phosphorous feeds the algae.

     Phosphorous is only the proximate cause of water concerns, however. A more insidious but powerful force lies in a political climate that twists community concerns about clean water into fearful resistance of any government regulation, even at the cost of keeping water potable.

     On Tuesday, Missouri voters approved a state constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to “engage in farming and ranching practices.” Essentially, farmers can do anything they like without concern for how it might affect the water used by those around them. North Dakota has a similar law. Three other states are considering similar legislation.

     Missouri’s “Right to Farm” vote is only the latest action in what has been a virtual war since the 1980s on the Clean Water Act and on other environment-related regulations. “These toxins are more toxic than cyanide,” said Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program and F.T. Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University, in referring to the algae bloom. Yet resistance to environmental regulations threatens to reach extreme levels.

     Ironically, Toledo is not only an example of how water gets polluted, it is also a lesson in why efforts to keep it clean pay off. Because of the Clean Water Act, Toledo installed water-filtering technology and controlled industrial pollution sources, giving them the capacity to clean up the water flows that the bloom had suddenly overwhelmed.

     Keeping water clean and safe will require farmers, industries and even households to make inconvenient and even costly changes. If we are unwilling to do so, we had all better develop a taste for drinking green glop.

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