Follow the Runoff

It is estimated that almost 922 million acres of land are in cultivation in the United States, producing everything from apples to soybeans. Farming is big business here, whether you’re in Midwestern states looking at corn and wheat, California and avocados, Florida and oranges, Virginia and hog farms.

There are a lot of problems with the agriculture system in the United States. There’s the heavy reliance on undocumented labour, which isn’t a problem in and of itself except for the fact that people who are undocumented are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation, which means that they are underpaid, overworked, exposed to hazardous working conditions, and treated like disposable commodities. Robots, perhaps, might honestly be a better way of putting it. Farm workers can be swapped out for new models when they don’t work anymore because you had them deported or they are too sick or they are striking for their rights, fighting for a chance at being treated like human beings.

There’s the heavy reliance on monocropping. The notorious abuses of the livestock stock industry. Monopolies on seed and supplies. Small farms being forced out of business. There’s a reason food politics in this country is a hot topic of discussion in a lot of circles. Most people seem to agree it needs reform, although they can’t agree on why it needs reform and what kinds of reforms need to happen to make it functional.

Today, I’d like to take a look at agricultural runoff, the flood of feces, chemicals, and other sundry delights that pours from farmlands all over the country, where it seeps its way into the groundwater, lakes and rivers, and the soil. Runoff is a perennial problem and in some communities, it’s a particularly pressing issue. Sometimes in the literal sense; in some regions, the only barrier keeping runoff back is dikes, which sometimes fail because of the pressure of the buildup behind them. And believe me, you would not want to stick your thumb in one of these babies, people.

There are a number of distinct issues with runoff. Biologists can tell you about the issue of nutrient pollution in US waterways in many parts of the country. Put briefly, too many nutrients in the water is a bad thing. It promotes the rapid growth of algae and invasive plants. They choke out native species, make waterways innavigable, and sometimes pose a threat to human health. This problem extends to bays and offshore waters in the ocean and in some cases has significantly damaged the fishing industry by causing fish kills. Oh, and sometimes algal blooms are toxic and people can’t go in the water.

One thing that tends to get elided when people talk about runoff from a biology perspective is the impact on human communities. People talk about loss of income as a result of things like fish kills, but there’s less of a focus on things like who cannot use waterways when they are flooded with toxins, who is exposed to serious health risks as a result of the uncontrolled release of manure, who is involved in cleanup when action is taken to address runoff problems.

I’m sure you will all be shocked to know that low-income communities experience pollution, including agricultural runoff, at higher rates than wealthier communities. Poorer communities tend to live downstream of agricultural operations. When you have situations like, say, ruptured manure lagoons, often it’s poor communities at the other end of that. Poor communities are less likely to ┬áhave the infrastructure for handling issues like downstream pollution and they are less likely to have highly educated members who can advocate for their communities.

Safe drinking water is a problem in a lot of rural communities in the United States. One reason for that? Runoff. Wells are becoming contaminated with bacteria and other organisms found in feces, along with agricultural chemicals. Rural communities tend to be disproportionately poor, and they don’t get a lot of attention. Contamination is viewed as a low-level, local, individual issue; if your well is dirty, dig a new one or get another source of water. Certainly it couldn’t have anything to do with the industrial agriculture in your community.

It’s poor communities that can’t enjoy their waterways when they are contaminated. It’s members of poor communities who choose to fish anyway in dangerous waters either because they have no choice or they have not been fully apprised of the risk. They eat what they catch and sometimes they get sick. But that’s because they were poor and ignorant. Not because their waterways were sickened by the actions of agricultural companies so eager to save a buck that they overlook basic safety steps that could be taken to reduce the risk of creating dangerous runoff or spills.

Here in Mendocino County, runoff from the vineyards used to be a big problem. The Navarro River was at times a sea of foul-smelling algae and muck. As more and more wealthy people moved to Anderson Valley, guess what happened? There was an outcry and the issue got addressed. Now the Navarro runs clear, fish stocks are rebounding, and I don’t think twice before swimming in it during the summer months. The only reason people managed to get traction on the runoff issue was because it impacted rich people who didn’t like looking at a smelly waterway crowded with gross stuff. You can say the same thing in Napa, where the notoriously polluted Napa River has been making some gains in recent years, again, because rich people said something about it.

When access to environmental cleanup is predicated on the size of the bank accounts held by people in the community, you have a serious problem.