Hustle and Flow: New Threats to Water

Ray Waddle

Like so many stories of modern life, this one begins with World War II. By the end of the war, the U.S. had a lot of nitrogen factories on its hands for producing TNT. American ingenuity converted them to peacetime use, making synthetic fertilizer with the nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing food.

A revolution was born. Farmers could now work fields without the painstaking necessity of applying livestock manure. The new fertilizer created a higher-yield crop bonanza, reinventing agriculture on a major scale, Corn, wheat, soybean could become epic industries, monocrops that would feed an overpopulated world.

An Age of Depletion

The nature of modern agriculture was transformed. It also began a new and disturbing story for water, a story of depletion and poison, a complicated story. Big agriculture depended on vast water extraction  or irrigation. This has caused depletion of surface water and aquifers. And fertilizer has created runoff – often poisonous nitrates and phosphorous – that go into waterways and lakes. So does toxic runoff from lawns, golf courses, highways, and sewer treatment plants.

Today some 40 percent of our surveyed lakes, rivers, and estuaries are too dirty for fishing or swimming. A main reason is “nonpoint source pollution” that goes into the waterways – diffuse pollutants and pesticides carried by rain, irrigation, and runoff across thousands of square miles upstream.

In food debates, issues of allergens, farm subsidies, junk food, or industry lobbying power have inspired an expanding galaxy of grassroots political defiance and consumer movements for healthier eating. The story of water, so far, breaks differently.

Alternative water initiatives don’t sprout up in the same way. We can’t grow or create water. It is always startling to be reminded how small is the amount of fresh water on earth (just 2.5 percent of earth’s water is fresh, and 70 percent of that is frozen in icecaps). Once it is spoiled by toxins, groundwater is difficult to clean up. Ensuring clean water requires larger, coordinated public solutions, public utilities and laws. Whole populations can suddenly be at risk. Whole populations have to work together.

For a few days in August, an entire city, Toledo, Ohio, had to shut down its municipal water supply. The irony was too big to miss. Toledo sits near the world’s largest surface fresh-water system on earth, the Great Lakes. Yet 500,000 people had to go without water because of a Lake Erie toxic algae bloom caused by runoff poisons and other sources.

Such emergencies have been predicted for years. In 2009, the EPA warned that the impact of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution will only accelerate. The culprits include urban stormwater runoff, city wastewater discharges, livestock manure, row-crop runoff, and nitrogen oxides in the air that land in the water. As the U.S. population increases, all these are expected to intensify.1

A few weeks later, the Toledo debacle was no longer news. Media interest moved on. Was it a freak event? Was anything learned? Commentators hoped Toledo would be a tipping point for a stronger national push against runoff poisons after years of limited government authority and resistance from industries. A new bill called the Safe and Secure Drinking Water Act started gaining momentum. It would order the EPA to better monitor toxins in the drinking water.

Perhaps bottled water, an icon of contemporary convenience and freedom, serves as a symbol of false security. The easy availability of bottled water can leave the impression that we don’t need public solutions to water problems: Everybody can just buy their own. It’s an illusion, of course. Bottled water doesn’t come from a magic aquifer. But ideas like watershed management and infrastructure upgrades sound too tedious and time-consuming in this extended libertarian moment. Regulation is on the defensive.

On the Case

Nevertheless, various groups are on the case, organizations that keep the human right to water in view on various fronts – including the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Food and Water Watch, the Global Interfaith Initiative to Promote Safe Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Some oppose fracking because of the impact of such oil and gas drilling on the water table. Others want to enhance safe water for children’s health. Others work for better cover crop and soil health management, helping farmers reduce runoff. The 2009 EPA “Urgent Call to Action” recommends national coordination of accountability procedures and corporate stewardship.

Healing the waters will require a broader horizon than tougher regulation of nonpoint source pollution. We must also look to the denizens of the natural world itself, says author Alice Outwater – bison, prairie dogs, beavers, alligators, and other creatures, nature’s environmental engineers who are under siege by human industrialization. When they are allowed to, they help do nature’s work of cleansing and filtering, she says.

“Without beavers, water makes its way too quickly to the sea; without prairie dogs, water runs over the surface instead of sinking into the aquifer; without bison, there are no groundwater-recharge ponds in the grasslands and the riparian zone is trampled; without alligators, the edge between the water and land is simplified,” she writes.2

The work of vigilance of healthy water extends across the states, across generations, across species, and world religions too. The future story of correcting environmental abuses will require partners from sea to shining sea.

Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections. He is the author of a new book, Undistorted God (Abingdon Press).


1 State-EPA Nutrient Innovations Task Group, August 2009. For instance, animal agriculture produces one billion tons of manure a year – eight million pounds of nitrogen per day, three million pounds of phosphorus per day. Much of it goes for organic fertilizer, but significant portions ends up in our waters, the report says.

2 Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (BasicBooks, 1996), pp. 175-176.