Toledo’s Water Crisis Starts with the Soil


220px-Runoff_of_soil_&_fertilizerBy Coach Mark Smallwood
Follow Coach’s blogs posts at Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen and EcoWatch

Lake Erie was poisoned by chemical agriculture. Naturally, the headlines are making people nervous about water supplies – and rightly so. However, what is not making the headlines is that this problem with our water actually starts with the soil.

Widespread use of synthetic fertilizers caused the chemical run-off into Lake Erie, cutting off the supply of drinking water to over 400,000 residents. The ban on drinking public water has been lifted – for now.

Toledo’s problem could soon become an issue for the vast majority of Americans whose lives depend on public drinking water, however, if agriculture in the U.S continues to use synthetic chemicals. Clean drinking water will become scarce if chemical farming practices continue to leach excess nitrogen and phosphorous into the water.

Rodale Institute is one of the only organizations in the U.S. that conducts independent research on agricultural practices. As early as the 1940’s, Rodale Institute founder J.I. Rodale noted that “Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People.” Current circumstances might have inspired him to also acknowledge that “Healthy Soil = Healthy Water = Healthy People.”

Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial has over 30 years of research, comparing organic and conventional agriculture – including impact on water systems. The results clearly demonstrate the destructive impact that agricultural chemicals have on soil health and water.

Through growing organic and conventional, side by side, our trials showed that water volumes in soil were 15 to 20% higher in the organic systems than the conventional. In organic farming systems, healthy soil absorbs rain, recharging the groundwater supply and leaving the soil in the field – where it belongs. On farms where the soil microbiology has been poisoned with synthetic chemicals, the soil cannot hold the rainwater and so the result is chemical run-off and soil erosion, sending the agricultural pollutants running off the surface – into Lake Erie, for example – taking the contaminated soil with it.

Algae blooms like those in Lake Erie reveal nature’s balancing act. For anyone in Toledo who dared to drink the water during the ban, they could expect vomiting and illness. Lake Erie is essentially responding in the same way to the agricultural run-off.

Chemicals on most farms are most easily moved throughout our ecosystem by water, and when the water picks these toxins up, they spread easily. The algal blooms in Lake Erie are just one recent example of how this can happen. We’ll need to work faster to help farmers transition to regenerative organic farming practices to preserve the purity of our water – for we will not last long without it.

We must focus on the health of the soil, as it is inseparable from the health of our water supply. Quite simply, everything is connected; water, soil, air, animal life, human health, and of course our food. We can correct many of the problems by transitioning global agricultural activity to regenerative organic practices, ensuring that clean water, and all our other life-giving resources, will remain healthy and accessible to all.

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