Intersection - Agricultural Runoff and Midwest Waterways

Oct 3, 2016

This week on Intersection we're exploring how agriculture affects rivers throughout the Midwest and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. We talk with Grant Gerlock, a Harvest Public Media reporter in Nebraska, and hear stories from Harvest Public Media reporters across the region. 

Listen to the full story here: 


Listen to the feature stories here:

Harvest Public Media's Luke Runyon reports on how farming and ranching are contributing to contamination of drinking water in towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains.

Harvest Public Media's Grant Gerlock reports on the impact of nitrogen fertilizer on our waterways, and how some farmers are stepping up to address nitrate pollution.

Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer explains how federal regulations struggle to control one of the Midwest's biggest environmental problems: farm runoff of harmful chemicals.

Harvest Public Media’s Peggy Lowe looks at how cities respond to water pollution – and create some of it, too.

Harvest Public Media's Kristofor Husted reports on new research on combating the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

A selected transcript from our interview with Grant Gerlock on the Watching Our Water series.

What happens here is definitely not contained here in the Midwest. It affects people all along the river ways, all along down to the gulf?

 

Exactly. So you can see effects here. You can see local effects, and you can see how cities and communities have to address these problems on the local level. But then you also see the sort of cumulative impact on down the river as all these – I mean you can think of the Mississippi River basin like just this giant bathtub that drains like a third of the country, all the way from Montana to Pennsylvania and on down. So it's this massive amount of land and water coming off all that land, across farm fields on all that land, pastures and cities, and ending up in one place – in the Gulf of Mexico. So what goes into the water in Missouri, in Iowa, in Nebraska, it ends up there. It's all connected. So it isn't just the local impact. You also have to look at what it looks like when you get to the end of the line down in the gulf.

 

And in your work and in your research in Nebraska, what surprised you when you were reporting?

 

I think I'm often interested and often surprised about how farmers look at these things. Farmers have a very pragmatic sense about these issues. They know about them. They're aware of their role in it. They may disagree at times on the steps they need to take, or how much blame they deserve or that kind of thing. We were really interested in looking at what farmers are doing, and what else they can do. And why – the reasons they may or may not be doing different things. And so I was interested in finding more about that. I think we all were, and one of the interesting things we found out was that farmers can be frustrated too at times by the slow pace of progress on these water quality problems. There are a number of farmers including a farm family that I met in Nebraska, who are very progressive about using advanced technology called precision farming to apply very specific amounts of fertilizer on their field, which means that there's less fertilizer ending up in the water. There are farmers who are very progressive about using different conservation techniques like planting buffer strips along waterways, which can filter out some of these chemicals or planting cover crops on their fields, which grow when the crops aren't growing and hold on to some of these chemicals so they don't end up in waterways. And these are all investments that they're making, and they're making these investments for several reasons. It's not just for water quality. It can often see improvements in soil quality, which means that they grow better crops. But there is sort of this side effect that the water quality improves too. So if you're a farmer who's investing in these progressive techniques, it can be frustrating to look to the next field or down the road and see a farmer who's not investing in that because the impact is collective.

 

Yes, and what about the dead zone in the gulf? Why does it exist, and why should we care?

 

Well, it is a very large ecological problem. So the dead zone is thousands of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico, a place that is a great fishing reservoir for the fishing industry, for the shrimp industry and that's really been decimated by this issue. It's caused because of the fertilizers, the nutrients in the fertilizers that end up in the water and that feeds these blooms of algae. Just these huge populations of algae pop up, and then they die, and as they decompose it pulls oxygen out of the water, just that natural process pulls out the oxygen and it's not a good place for fish or wildlife. And so that's the result. And it's coming from those nutrients coming down from the Mississippi River. It's not all from farming, but around 2/3 of the nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to this problem come from either crop farming or from livestock, and the other contributions come from wastewater systems, from cities or from wastewater from factories. So there are other contributions, but the largest contribution is from agriculture. And that's the connection. So people should be worried because it's a sort of ecological disaster that's on our shores. It has a multibillion-dollar impact on those industries in the gulf, and it ties directly back to practices in our region. So it's something for people to be aware of and consider – consider their connection to it.