This is a story about a river, the power of water and one guy’s trip across a whole lot of ground over the course of a year.
One day my wife and I were traveling north from Western Pennsylvania bound for New York. I decided to take some less traveled roads home, and with the help of my GPS, I was on roads that took me back in time: small towns, old gas stations, and closed general stores. Technology has an ironic way of acting like a time machine, guiding you by satellite to areas which, in history, probably had great local significance but are currently quite forgotten. We found ourselves coming out of a stretch of back roads to a hard corner around a small Northwestern Pennsylvania dairy farm. A bridge loomed ahead. It was one of the hundreds you see when crossing a small, off-the-beaten path-stream. It had a small blue sign with white letters, and being the curious sort, I had to find out the name of the stream.
It was the Allegheny River.
I immediately hit the brakes and slowed down. “Nah, it can’t be,” I told myself, and I looked for a place to turn around and go back. It only took me two seconds to cross the bridge because the stream was that small. I found a place, turned around and sure enough, it was the Allegheny River. With my wife’s encouragement, I took a picture to commemorate the moment. During the rest of the drive, I began thinking about connections and networks. I began to think about the human body and the different parts: I thought about things like veins and arteries and how they connect to feed the entire body from head to toe. I also thought about how we are all socially connected today via Google, Facebook, and other social media outlets.
In May of 2015, my wife and I had the pleasure of going to Cape Girardeau, Missouri to attend our son’s graduation. In the process, we got to encounter God’s wondrous creation of some of the most venerated bodies of water in the United States. We came in contact with the Wabash, the Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. On our return trip home, we decided to skirt Lake Erie for good measure and began to experience the immense size and scope of our Intracoastal Waterway System. These rivers and lakes from the watery arteries and organs that transport goods and services throughout the United States. Here are some staggering facts as to the scope and importance of just one member of this system: the Mississippi River.
With the Flood of 2011, humankind continued to display an amazing ability to manage large rivers. During an 80 year period, engineers studied, planned, dug, and built systems to help control a river that discharges over 4,000,000 gallons of water per second or 2,400,000,000 gallons per minute. In 2011, a disaster of monumental proportions was averted. Unfortunately, another disaster is currently brewing, bringing our story back to New York.
Unsurprisingly, my views on river systems began to take shape during these two road trips. Food and farming must have rivers and lakes for transportation purposes, and these waterways must be maintained or face destruction. Improper care and management leads to ecologically sterile systems and transforms them into big pools of muck and mire (much like the Conowingo Reservoir on the Susquehanna River, the last impoundment before the river enters the Chesapeake Bay). In the past 20 years, the effects of farming on riverine ecosystems have become the center of attention with the Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom of 2014 and 2015. These two events are the most recent reminders that while we depend on aquatic systems for successful commercial endeavors, waterways depend on us for their effectual management and sustainable utilization (e.g., crop irrigation and drink water). For example, while nutrients are critical for successful plant growth, excessive runoff can drastically change aquatic ecosystems by altering vegetation density and creating anoxic (oxygen-less) environments through increased algal growth and eventual decomposition. Agronomists have known that different types and methods of nitrogen application result in varying crop utilization rates. Therefore, our objective as members of the agricultural community should be in practicing sustainable methods which have minimal impacts on our environment.
While much attention has been granted to advances in areas such as information and communications technologies, we also need to focus on protecting our ecosystems. For example, farmers need to consider how their production techniques along riparian zones impact aquatic systems (such as where they let cows or hogs go to water). I know, you may be thinking, “But it’s just a small hog farm with 50 sows and a couple of boars. What’s the big deal?” What I learned is that the headwaters of the Allegheny ultimately form a mighty river. If the public majority has a negative attitude at the “headwaters” then how can we expect anything different downstream? When it comes to attitudes, size doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, municipalities also find themselves contributing to the nitrogen load. Residents in the Riverhead, Long Island area witnessed the effects of dumping wastewater into the East End Bay. Algal blooms formed due to elevated nitrogen levels from the waste water, resulting in reduced water quality in areas home to native scallop populations. The Nature Conservancy and other groups brought this into focus with a proposal to have 10,000 acres of ground set aside for an Open Space program intended to protect aquatic ecosystems. A program would be put in place to provide homeowners a rebate for upgrading their wastewater treatment systems.
If you can travel the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway 401 and Trans-Canada Rt. 20, it is worth your trip. These highways will take you through a river valley that is unique and picture worthy with huge rock boulders appearing out of nowhere carved millennia ago when the landscape was much different. It’s a beautiful stretch of waterway with a beauty unique unto itself. It is through these waters that much of Canada’s agriculture from Quebec, Ontario, and even parts of Manitoba is sent to markets around the world. The International Joint Commission, a commission created to manage the boundary waters between Canada and the United States, recently adopted a plan to make slight alterations to the water management plan of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario waterways so that flow rates resemble natural seasonal schedules of ebb and flow. It was a 15-year project that involved the sovereign bodies of tribes, nations, and municipalities and included the input of hunters, fishermen, private citizens and industry (most notably the shipping industry). With this slight change, over 64,000 acres of wetlands will be restored and millions of dollars in outdoor revenues will be reaped in the local communities.
We, in the United States, are either very blessed or just plain lucky, depending on your point of views. Being a Creationist, I say we are very blessed. We are blessed with immense natural resources and beautiful landscapes. The Mississippi River Region has some of the most intensive corn and soybean farming in the world. The soils and the vitality contained in them have
The vital U.S. Intracoastal Waterway System compared to the market value of farming. Notice the strong correlations.
given us a lucrative bounty of harvest, creating much wealth. There is no shame in exploiting natural resources. That may shock some people for the word “exploit” has gotten a bad connotation, but it simply means to make use of what one has been given. We need to exploit these precious resources, but not abuse them. The speed at which the Mississippi flows at its mouth at New Orleans is about 1.2 miles per hour. Not too fast is it? Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for our decisions to impact rivers. It may not seem not too fast, but when they come into sight it’s a big deal.
When I crossed the Allegheny River in Western New York, the water in it was destined to go past Cape Girardeau, Missouri. If the Mississippi flows over 4,000,000 gallons of water per second, this part of the Allegheny flows barely 200 gallons per second. While these streams may be comparatively small, they all create one immense river. Sounds pretty similar to the old saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Do I have all the answers or solutions? No, but these issues are surfacing and gaining
traction. Just as the flow of the river is slow, so are changes to agriculture. With a farm economy that is so fine tuned to the economics of food and national policy, it takes us a while to remember how profound of an effect we have on “The River” and all that lives in it. The 4R Stewardship Program is certainly a powerful tool that will incorporate the best practices for utilizing fertilizer for our farmland and helping to keep soil in its place through practices that make sense for the local area. Our size and abundant resources are our tremendous strengths, but also our biggest banes. Take a smaller sovereign entity like Nova Scotia, for example. With a similar abundance of natural resources on a much smaller scale, the relationship between land and water is easier to grasp. Watch this video from this oysterman and his view on the interaction between land and sea. To scoff at such insight is to scoff at our own natural resources and how we choose to exploit them. Our EPA is aware of such interactions with the final test guidelines for Guidelines for Aquatic and Sediment Dwelling Fauna published on January 12, 2017
“We all in the industry realize if we don’t have a good environment we can’t survive”, Charles Purdy, Bay Enterprises, Ltd.
For those of us who take these things seriously and want to get a broader perspective on the interaction between man, world, food, and farming might I suggest a recently published book from SARE, Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (a department of the USDA), on the tightly woven connection between all of us when we sit down to eat our meals.
I want everyone who would ever read or hear about this article to know that I don’t have an ax to grind or an agenda against farming because I love those who farm and supply farmers. Instead, I write to give a balanced view based on what I know and where I see our society and nation going. Indeed, water and all its life-giving properties are vital to the stability of all humankind.
Thanks for reading!
Here are further references. However, much more are available for your studies.