Organic vs. Conventional Farming – Which Favors Cleaner Water?

In a 2011 study conducted by the University of Vermont, stemming from clean water issues in revered Lake Champlain, results were inconclusive as to whether organic farming or conventional farming practices favor a cleaner lake.

What is suggested is, all other things being equal, the rigidity of organic farming standards (some of which are noted below) lend themselves to better land management practices – which may have a positive impact in reducing the nutrient (see: manure) runoff that is largely responsible for Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs). Some standards mentioned are:

  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety,
    the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
  • Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.

According to the study, a challenge the organic farmer with animals faces, which a conventional farmer may not, is keeping pastured animals from directly wading into streams and lakes — instantly polluting the water.

  • For grazing animals it is important to regulate the extent to which the cows interact with natural waterways. Where livestock have access to these waters there is an increased risk of nutrient losses to surface water.

Clearly the motivation to go organic in farming extends beyond better land management — and the chart above illustrates the financial incentive that may accompany such a move — but there appears to be little doubt that agriculture runoff remains a chief contributor to pollution in Lake Champlain. This is largely consistent across the USA, wherever clean water issues arise.

 

 

Private Regulation of WI Farm Operations Ill-advised

At a time when the number of  factory farms has risen precipitously, cutting regulatory staff tasked to ensure these operations remain compliant with regulations is a curious, questionable move.  But, in WI, this is precisely the what is happening.

According to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, pressure to reduce budgets has resulted in a 18% reduction in staff at the WI Department of Natural Resources, since 1995. This, while the number of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permits in WI has more than doubled in the past decade.

cafograph_lg-2Even more troubling? Fines for pollution in WI hit a 30-year low in 2015.

Several counties in WI are struggling with — perhaps suffering under is a more appropriate description — massive increases in dairy cows in their region, and the incredibly large amounts of manure these herds create. Kewaunee County, as has been mentioned numerous times in prior blogs here, is perhaps the best current example.

While nobody argues the value of manure as a valuable source of fertilizer for farm operations, it is also clear that manure is a primary contributor to non-point pollution which results in devastating algae blooms as seen annually in Lake Erie, Lake Okeechobee, and many other rivers, streams and lakes across the USA.

Wisconsin lawmakers suggest that cooperative regulation will make the process more efficient, less costly, and will result in better practices resulting in decreased pollution, etc.

Perhaps.

But just as likely, if not even more so, is that environmental costs in the form of contaminated ground water, surface water dead zones, algae blooms, and the inherent health risks within area communities, will far outweigh whatever meager savings and questionable efficiencies are attained.

Donald Trump – coming clean.

Ok. So Donald Trump staged the greatest upset in US political history with his election as the 45th President of the United States. Some are happy. Some are sad. As usual, and I suspect unfortunately, about this US citizens are split 50-50.

Politics, grants, and fundraising for Clean Water Warrior (CWW) aside, what does the election of Donald Trump mean for clean water initiatives across the USA?

Presently, the news is not good. But this may change.

Donald Trump must lead charge on clean water
Donald Trump must lead charge on clean water

The Not Good News

On clean water pollution and Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs), it is 100% certain Donald Trump does not know what he’s talking about. Case in point: because it is a hot-spot for clean water issues, we often reference Lake Okeechobee in FL. As it turns out, when President-Elect Trump campaigned in FL, he presented his (ignorant, and incorrect) opinion on how to resolve the problems with the beleaguered lake:

“My administration will address important environmental priorities like the Everglades and ensure quality water all across America, including the fixing of water problems like Lake Okeechobee,” Trump saidaccording to an article from the Miami New Times. “It’s amazing. You know, Lake Okeechobee, they’re always letting the water out. Do you ever notice we always have droughts? They’re always letting the water out. I said keep it in! We won’t have any droughts.”

I could explain why he is wrong, completely wrong, with this non-solution. But I will instead reference Dale Gawlik, professor and director of Florida Atlantic University’s Environmental Science Program, an expert who says Trump’s idea will hurt Lake O.

“If you were completely uncaring about the ecology of Lake Okeechobee and the fish and birds that live there and just view it as a big holding tank of water, what he’s saying could have some merit,” Gawlik told the New Times.

“The lake can’t go above a certain level because of the structural integrity of the lake, so you’re capped out there. We’re already almost there. What (Trump’s) suggesting is you throw out all the ecological importance, which is tied to a lot of tourism and industry there, and just look at drought alone.”

Ignorance is bliss and, apparently, not a hindrance to getting elected President of the United States. Even in Florida where, despite his zero knowledge about the single most important ecological piece of land and water IN THE STATE, he won the electoral votes.

So … knowing almost nothing about the national clean water crisis is the “not good” news. But, hold on. With President-Elect Trump there IS good news. Really good news.

He is building his platform on improving the infrastructure of the United States. Making it the best in the world, he says.

The Good News

If Donald Trump can be held accountable for words spoken and vows pledged during his successful campaign, infrastructure improvements sit atop his to-do list.

As each of these projects commence via a cooperative effort of Federal and State government, and private industry, clean water will at times be an unavoidable part of the planning.

Though they have nothing to do with Trump, exciting clean water infrastructure programs are already underway via support from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Can we expect even more attention and funding like this during President Trump’s term?

Why not?

The man staged the greatest political upset in American history. If he is smart enough to do that, he can certainly learn the basics about HABs, and how to combat them.

I believe he will and, if so, the USA will lead the way in curbing in some places, and eliminating in others, HAB activity.

Leading the way in providing solutions for cleaner, safer water.

That will be a huge step in Trump’s mission to make America great again.

 

 

 

When HABs Strike … and Why.

Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs), which often come in the form of blue-green algae – the scientific name being Cyanobacteria, are a true problem to the health of freshwater and saltwater bodies across the planet. And a problem that has for years been recognized.

Although scientists are still seeking to learn more about HABs, rules of thumb do prevail. And, to boot, these rules are predictable and fairly straightforward.

This comes from a page provided by the WI Department of Natural Resources:

According to scientific literature, cyanobacteria most commonly occur in late summer and early fall when water temperatures reach 72°-80° F. At these temperatures, cyanobacteria grow rapidly and may create a bloom within a few days.”

In addition, excessive levels of nutrients must be added to the mix. And that means phosphorus, as noted on this page from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

NASA Image: Great Britain Red-Tide
NASA Image: Great Britain Red-Tide

These conditions help explain why warm-weather areas like Florida, with robust agricultural industries, are particularly vulnerable to the constant, and sometimes debilitating, reappearances of HABs.

Not much can be done about the weather but, as has been noted many times in this blog — quoting national and international experts on the subject — phosphorus runoff from agricultural operations CAN be reduced via better land management.

And that’s a start ….