Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Why Doesn’t Doing More Help?

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Mississippi River States Meeting for the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL).  The organization was created in 1996 for the purpose of providing environmentally progressive legislators with an opportunity to coordinate their activities with respect to national legislative organizations, and to share ideas both on affirmative and negative environmental issues.  

The meeting focused on efforts to clean up the Mississippi River.   In 2008 the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences published Mississippi River Water Quality and the Clean Water Act: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities  The 253 page report catalogues the pollution problems that began with the alteration of the Mississippi river and its watershed as well as the nutrient run-off problems that create a hypoxia zone (little or no oxygen) in the Gulf of Mexico each year.

The first evening a legislator from Minnesota encouraged other participants to think about ‘why doing more of the same thing doesn’t help.’  She went on to talk about the millions of dollars that have been invested in cleaning up the Mississippi with little improvement in water quality and expressed concern over whether it was wise to continue spending money on activities that didn’t yield a noticeable improvement.  She encouraged state legislators to think about new approaches.

I spent much of the rest of the conference thinking about her question as I watched presentations on hypoxia, climate change, biofuels, state legislation and pesticides reaching the Mississippi River.

I believe one reason for the failure to make progress is that legislation at the state and federal level has lagged far behind advances in technology that lead to much larger negative impacts on the environment.  One example is the Clean Water Act.  “Normal farming” practices are exempt from regulation under the Section 404 (dredge and fill permitting) program and much of the rest of the Act   But what agricultural producers consider ‘normal farming’ is much different now than when the exemption was created in 1977.  And nowadays ‘normal farming’ has the potential to create a much larger footprint.  Super-sized fields and farm machinery, laser leveling, combined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), genetically modified crops– the list of advances and changes in farming practices goes on and on and it continues to change and evolve.  This, by itself, is not necessarily bad.  Many of the changes have also provided opportunities to reduce pollution, improve wildlife habitat, and create more environmentally-friendly farming practices.

However, while the pluses may have slowed degradation, they have not been enough to significantly improve water quality in the Mississippi particularly with the increased application of nitrogen on cropland in response to the push to produce ethanol from corn.  Corn requires the application of nitrogen to grow well. Nowadays significant improvement in water quality in the Mississippi River and the elimination of the hypoxia zone would require greater than 50% reduction in amount of nitrogen reaching the river according to Dennis Keeney from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

There is no simple solution to cleaning up the Mississippi.  But conference participants were committed to identifying promising opportunities.  Legislators explored ideas about using wetlands, encouraging the development of new practices, holding water on the land, finding alternatives to stormwater detention basins, and expanding incentives to encourage production of other biofuels that need significantly less nitrogen. 

The problems are complex, the technology is lagging, and solutions must stretch across many states to reach the entire Mississippi watershed.  It is hard to imagine a successful solution unless it is accomplished through the joint cooperation of many states and interest groups, innovation and revisions to both incentive and regulatory programs.

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