News / Policy / Science

To whom does the fault belong?

As I assume many of you are aware, last week was a big week for those in the environmental sciences.  And by that, I mean, something in our ‘field’ was front page news.  I’m sure you all have heard it by now: “2014 is the hottest year on record“.  Which is big news, but there was a smaller news story that caught my eye.  Did you hear how the Des Moines Water Works is planning to sue three upstream counties for allowing high nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon River?  This is an unprecedented move, that IMHO (which means, ‘in my humble opinion’, for those who didn’t know, like me), the eventual outcome of this proposed legal move could have huge ramifications for how the Clean Water Act is actually enforced.

Oh, Des Moines.  Named the "Wealthiest City in America" in 2014 by NBC.  Who knew?  Image courtesy:

Oh, Des Moines. Named the “Wealthiest City in America” in 2014 by NBC. Who knew? Image courtesy of:

But first, what’s the big deal about nitrate?  From an environmental stand-point, it’s kind of a big deal.  Every living thing requires nitrogen in some form or another (typically as nitrate).  It’s in the DNA and proteins of all of us everywhere, so, you know, it’s essentially the basis of life.  But the vast majority of nitrogen on earth is in the form of dinitrogen in the atmosphere, which for the most part, is largely un-reactive and can’t be used by the vast majority of organisms (there are few organisms called nitrogen-fixers that actually can ‘fix’ nitrogen, but I’m digressing).  And this was how it was for a long, long time – where there was only a limited amount of nitrogen that was actually usable by organisms and for the premise of this post, limited the amount of food that could be produced and therefore human population.  And then Fritz Haber came along and found a way to convert dinitrogen (the inert form) into ammonia (which can easily be converted to nitrate via microbial processes).  And now we, essentially, have an unlimited supply of nitrogen at our disposal, allowing us to dump this stuff on our fields and increase food production.  Yay!

But, no.  Now we’re realizing that too much nitrogen is not a good thing, especially when it just washes away from the fields and to the streams, rivers, and oceans of our backyards.  You remember the whole Toledo, OH fiasco this past summer?  Yeah, most likely, partly due to excess nitrogen.  The huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?  Yup, partly due to nitrogen.  And the problem doesn’t only lead to wild growth of small, toxic, cyanobacteria, and dead zones in the open ocean, but can also be harmful to human health when ingested through drinking water, especially to infants.  So, if we put the nitrogen in, how do we get it out?

The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.  Dark red and orange colors are areas where oxygen is too low for lots of sea life.  Image courtesy of: NOAA Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Watch

The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. Dark red and orange colors are areas where oxygen is too low for lots of sea life. Image courtesy of:

This question is the premise of the debate over who actually has responsibility for polluting our waterways with nitrate and who should do something about it.  Farmers argue that cutting back on the amount of fertilizer to fields would reduce production and limit food supply driving up prices (it probably would) and adding ways to remove nitrogen before it reaches the stream, by putting in riparian buffers or artificial marshes, would be expensive and remove valuable land for production (truth).  Municipalities downstream where nitrate concentrations are high say it’s the farmers fault and it’s too expensive to remove (which it is).  So who should take the blame – farmers or consumers?  And where would the money to ‘fix’ the problem come from (because, inevitably, it all comes down to the $$$)?

What's the best incentive to reduce nitrogen run-off from farms?  On a voluntary basis or through litigation?  Image courtesy of:

What’s the best incentive to reduce nitrogen run-off from farms? On a voluntary basis or through litigation? Image courtesy of:

These are questions farmers, scientists, conservationists, and policy makers from the local, state, and federal level have been grappling with for a long time now.  And nobody really knows what to do.  Do you let farmers make changes on a voluntary basis by generating incentives to limit fertilizer use and build marshes?  And where would this incentive money come from?  Taxes?  Farmers?  Or, do you go the litigation route and enact the Clean Water Act, forcing farmers to take drastic measures, possibly driving up food prices?  What’s the price of sustainability? Deep questions, for sure….

We know which way Des Moines has decided to take (bringing out the big guns=litigation) and it will be interesting to see what comes of it.  Updates to follow (though, forewarning, Des Moines hasn’t actually filed the litigation, so it could be awhile…).  I for one, am waiting on pins and needles.

Original NPR Story (’cause I’m pretty sure once you hit grad school, you’re obligated to follow NPR)

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