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Nathan BeacomMay 28, 2020
In the Ohio and Upper Mississippi river basins, 10 million metric tons of commercial fertilizer is applied each year, and much of it ends up in our waterways. (iStock/filmfoto)In the Ohio and Upper Mississippi river basins, 10 million metric tons of commercial fertilizer is applied each year, and much of it ends up in our waterways. (iStock/filmfoto)

Five years ago, Pope Francis laid out a standard for water quality in his encyclical “Laudato Si’”: “Access to safe, drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (No. 30).

In the agricultural heart of the United States and in the grain and livestock regions of central Canada, there is a quiet danger to this fundamental right: farm runoff. This danger has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken root in rural and Native American communities as well as in big cities. In these places, some people suffer from lung ailments caused by contaminated water, putting them at higher risk from the pandemic. Others have no clean water with which to wash their hands.

Our contemporary methods of farming are nutrient-intensive, meaning that for crops like corn and soy, large amounts of fertilizer are used. But the methods used in the farming of commodity crops also result in soil losing the structure that would have retained the fertilizer’s chemicals—and would keep them from entering groundwater and nearby waterways. Larger livestock operations, likewise, result in the leaching of massive, concentrated quantities of animal waste. This means polluted wells, aquifers, rivers and lakes.

In the agricultural heart of the United States and in central Canada, there is a quiet danger to the right to clean water: farm runoff.

The upper Midwest, where much of this nutrient-intensive farming is done, constitutes much of the watershed for the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which flow into the Gulf of Mexico. In the gulf, nutrients from U.S. farms contribute to hypoxia, a condition where an overabundance of oxygen results in the mass death of aquatic life. But one need not go that far downstream to find harmful effects. Places like Armenia, Wis., are finding what The New York Times called “their own, private Flints,” as residential water wells become unusable because of bacteria from animal waste or nitrate far in excess of healthy levels.

In the Ohio and Upper Mississippi river basins, 10 million metric tons of commercial fertilizer is applied each year. In streams running near farms, the nitrogen levels frequently exceed the maximum safe levels for drinking, and the nitrate levels in the water flowing from drainage tiles in row-cropping operations (large farms that plant commodity crops in long, wide rows) is on average double the maximum safe level of saturation. In cities like Des Moines, the local waterworks must spend tens of millions of dollars to filter out nitrate water from the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, where a growing number of fish kills are being recorded. Extreme weather, like last year’s devastating floods, has exacerbated the problem by causing even higher quantities of pollutants in the soil to contaminate groundwater, waterways and drinking wells.

Residential water wells become unusable because of bacteria from animal waste or nitrate far in excess of healthy levels.

Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, both emphasized that a “trinitarian” vision of the world demands action to protect the environment. “The divine Persons,” Pope Francis wrote in “Laudato Si’,” “are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships” (No. 240).

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our water system, which really does reach around the globe and into every living thing. Water ought to remind us that we exist always in countless relationships, by which we are undeservedly blessed and toward which we have responsibilities.

The agricultural water problem is every American’s problem, and, what is more, the problem of clean water access in the developing world is our problem, too. As Francis notes, animals and plants have a dignity all their own, and we are called to preserve and protect their flourishing. Each of the creatures God made, the pope tells us, is the object of his tender affection, and it is incumbent upon us to treat those creatures with respect and care. This includes refraining from the avoidable destruction of their habitats and ecosystems.

Working for the common good means that government and industry must take responsibility for the health of our water, finding ways to limit our consumption and encouraging farmers to use cover crops, buffers and other means to mitigate the harmful runoff of waste and harmful chemicals from fertilizers. (Cover crops are planted after a cash crop is harvested in order to cover the soil and hold it in place in the off-season. Buffer strips are portions of a farm that are kept in permanent vegetation; their roots capture pollutants before they can enter the waterway.) Other strategies, like decreasing tillage and increasing crop diversification are also being explored.

It is the job of all of us to be attentive to the state of the water in our country, in our states and in our communities. Limiting our consumption and educating ourselves on what we consume is a place to start. This means becoming aware of where the ingredients in our processed food come from and even reconsidering meat as our staple source of protein. Individual behavior is not enough to confront the weight of these problems, however, and this is why Francis tells us that civic and political action is the necessary outgrowth of private action.

The church has called again and again for its members to engage in the work of building a “civilization of love and peace.” In taking responsibility for the water we all share, we grow the circle of our solidarity with our neighbors and our world. This, Francis tells us again and again, is a way of growing closer to God.

Countries and populations privileged with greater resources have a responsibility to share wealth, techniques and expertise with poorer countries where water quality problems are most acute. There are many private and public efforts to improve clean water access around the world, whether through the U.S. Agency for International Development or The Water Project, they deserve our support. With the renewed attentiveness to public health brought on by the coronavirus, we can make some progress toward clean water, here and around the world.

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