Water Quality: Cleared Land Doesn’t Mean Clean Land Introduction Water is one of the most essential resources for humans. It is used for drinking, recreation, energy, cooking, bathing-in fact entire lives are centered around it. The earth is made up of 71% of water with the oceans holding 96.5% of it. From that, the water we use every day is small in comparison. According to Jeannie Barlow, a representative of USGS, Lower Mississippi Gulf Water Science Center, only about 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh water, as can be seen in figure one.
An even smaller amount, 1.3%, is easily accessible in the form of surface water. With small numbers such as these, the concern about this resource is understandable. Pollutants released into the water could have a catastrophic effect. Because of this, groundwater and surface water shortages, especially in the Mississippi River Delta, are closely monitored to ensure excess nutrients are not harmful to the environment.
Problem Sometime around 1727, the Mississippi River Delta floodplain underwent construction, “its natural floodplain has been reduced about 90% in area by levee construction” (“Mississippi River”).
Because of this what use to be a wetland area filled with hardwoods soon changed into a logged, drained plain, as can be seen in figure two. The goal of this was so that the land could be used for agriculture and habitation. In many ways clearing the land was a good thing because it eliminated mosquitoes and other disease-inducing factors; however, it also caused another set of problems. With no trees to block it, the water which ran into lakes and streams carried loose debris and topsoil, including excess nutrients found in the soil put there through the use of fertilizers.
A catch twenty-two situation ensued. Since the land had been used for crops, the nutrients naturally found eventually depleted over time. In order for farmers to produce the same amount of product, a foreign component had to be added in the form of extra nutrients.
Fertilizers used on the crops help them to grow. Once harvested, the extra nutrients remained in the soil and were eventually carried into lakes and streams through water runoff, whether it be through surface water or underground. Figure three shows how groundwater moves, carrying nutrients into the surface water—which eventually is used for drinking, eating, recreation, etc.
Without the fertilizers, crops would not grow because of the damage done by over-farming and not allowing the land to replenish itself of natural nutrients. With the fertilizers, unnatural, perhaps even malignant, substances are introduced to the ecosystem and, eventually, to the water system.
The quality of water is affected as well. According to a writer for The Nature Conservancy, “reduced water storage capacity on the floodplain contributes to unnatural water level fluctuations [which in turn,] severely limit the abundance and diversity of native plant communities in the river and its floodplain [and] contributes to abnormally high floods and associated damages to private property and human life” (“Mississippi River and Its Floodplain…”). The fluctuations of water can be just as damaging as the introduction of pollutants, and depending on when the fluctuations occur, it is possible that an even more dangerous situation will ensue. Think about an already low water content polluted by extra nutrients dumped in the ground through fertilizer. Chances are the nutrients presented by the fertilizer are not completely healthy, but even if they are, a surplus of anything can prove harmful. So, when faced with a situation like this, one may end up with a more concentrated dose of pollutants in the water.
Possible Solutions One possible solution for this scenario is for farmers to allow the land to replenish itself naturally over time and to plant crops that produce greater amounts of nitrogen. However, due to the issue of supply and demand, this solution does not seem like a likely fix. To fix that issue, farmers could plant on a three field rotating system like they did in the Middle Ages. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “in the three-field system, only a third of the land lay fallow. In the autumn one third was planted and in the spring another third of the land was planted [This] strengthened the soil by [its] nitrogen-fixing ability” (“three-field system | agriculture”). Even though not as much of the product would be available for consumption, the three-field system would be better for the environment, especially if no fertilizer is used. The minerals supplied by the land occur naturally and therefore would not be as harmful in a situation where a low water fluctuation occurred. Also, the minerals that ran off into the water would not be as potent since it would only be the excess left over from the crops.
Another possible solution to consider is to not completely clear the land as what happened in figure two with the Mississippi River Delta. If a few trees were left scattered around, it may seem a bit inconvenient to farm around them, but in the long run they could help trap some of the excess junk that would otherwise end up in the water. The trees would also help anchor the soil, so that there would not be a reoccurance of what happened during the Dust Bowl: “when drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds” (“Dust Bowl”). This scenario may not necessarily be plausible, but it is possible, but by keeping some of the trees instead of clear cutting the land, it could be avoided. The trees would also work as a kind of alternate pathway for nutrients so that not as many would end up in the ground water. Either of these solutions could work to improve the water quality because less pollutants would end up win the water supply.
Relation to Society The quality of the water distributed to the public depends on the environment it was gathered from. Although the water may undergo a filtering process, that does not guarantee that all the pollutants are removed. In fact, according to EPA.gov, “Drinking water can reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants” (“Water Health Series: Filtration Facts”). The Environmental Protection Agency pamphlet goes on to state these contaminants include things such as lead or bacteria. The health of the public is a valid concern for those who deal with water quality.
Economical Issues Economically, the quality of water is important because of how much time and money is spent on it. Naturally we do not want to drink water that is unhealthy or tastes bad, but it goes much deeper than that. According to EPA.gov, “Nutrient pollution has diverse and far-reaching effects on the U.S. economy, impacting tourism, property values, commercial fishing, recreational businesses and many other sectors that depend on clean water” (“The Effects: Economy”). Polluted water can endanger entire ecosystems. In April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil spill demonstrated just how expensive, exhaustive, and devastating pollutants can be Even though the pollutants here was oil and not nutrients, the same principle applies. A pollutant is a pollutant. BP spent over 14 billion dollars to try and fix this pollution problem.
In the same way, nutrient pollution can be just as devastating. As stated on EPA.gov, nutrient pollution could hinder the value of real estate property or limit tourism. No one wants to go to a beach where fish are washing up dead on shore because they have been poisoned due to overexposure. Biblical Ethics As Christians, we should make it our duty to take care of what has been given to us. “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Since we are to rule over nature, that also means we must take care of it. In the creation account of Genesis, God reviews everything He has made and calls it good.
Because He loves the land, we should love the land and care for it. Figure two is an example of what God meant when He said to subdue the earth, but so is figure four. God did not give us express instructions on how to take care of the land He had provided us with. We must figure that out on our own. As figure one shows, God provided us with a planet that is made of mostly water, but of which we can only use a small percentage. In this way, He expected us to care for our resources and be responsible with them. Conclusion Water quality is an important topic for discussion, especially when we realize just how much of an impact it has on our lives. Water is constantly needed everywhere. It is like liquid gold to those who thirst. When the Mississippi River Delta was clear cut to grow crops, water quality was affected because excess nutrients were dumped in it. We have explored why water quality is important, its relationship to society, the economical issues it presents, and Biblical ethics we should live by as Christians. We have seen just how much we rely on clean water to carry on with everyday lives. Once all of this is taken into consideration it really is no wonder that Leonardo Da Vinci describes water as “the driving force of all nature”.