Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gunk, Germs and Eel

One of the original events that triggered this blog was concerned about fertilizer runoff in my immediate neighborhood. Here's another article raising concerns about fertilizer runoff and its effect on our waterways and other bodies of water.

The article raises an interesting point. There are some types of bacteria and other microbes that have distinct evolutionary advantages over their brethren. When conditions remain the way they are, we may not see them much; but once they gain the upper hand, it's extremely difficult to get rid of them.

This isn't, of course, true of just microbes alone. Invasive species in general are all about getting the upper hand. We have grass carp from China in the Sparkill pond across the street from me; these fish are practically impossible to remove from a body of water once they become established. They are the dominant piscine form in the pond now. We do see occasional indigenous largemouth bass, bluegills, perch, and the odd eel here and there, but what there definitely are are thousands of grass carp.

 The difficulty with bacterial invasions are that bacteria have such enormously flexible responses to environments. Unlike larger creatures, they have a very fluid ability to get into every tiny crack and crevice of an environment. Eliminating them is a nightmarish prospect.

Our wanton spreading of fertilizer in massive quantities all over every nation has resulted in aggressive over-fertilization of waterways, but most especially bodies of water which are stagnant — that is, that have little or no exit flow to clear them of these nutrients. What happens is that the nutrients build up over time, creating a richer and richer environment for the explosive growth of species that never would have been able to gain a foothold without the presence of the fertilizers.

The resultant algal blooms are sometimes toxic; and when they are, it's disastrous, because they can poison an entire waterway and render it unfit for almost any other life form. But even when they aren't toxic, they deoxygenate the waterways where they bloom, rendering them — once again — unfit for other creatures.

The effects of actions like this are cumulative in the case of stagnant water ways. The fertilizers that get dumped into streams and rivers that drain into relatively stable ponds and lakes stay there. The costs of removing them are impossibly high, except on a micromanagement basis in the smallest bodies of water. We are thus creating a situation where we are slowly poisoning many of the waterways we rely on for both irrigation, drinking water, and recreation. The effects of this are cumulative — the waterways are acting as long-term "toilets" for our waste runoff.

 Some readers may be aware of the fact that I am in the textile business and travel to China a great deal. This job has given me the opportunity to see the dark side of water treatment issues, as well as the many mechanisms textile plants have to put in place to treat water. Textile printing and finishing, for those of you who don't know it, is an extremely water intensive business. Within the last decade, China has seen some spectacular and disastrous Lake blooms of algae — such as the one discussed in the article — in lakes such as Taihu lake near Wuxi, a major textile producing area. The government actually had to partially shut down textile production in the area in 2006 or 2007 to control the microbial problem.

Of course, the textile industry is only a tiny fraction of the problem with our waterways. Realistically speaking, the single greatest threats are twofold: first, nitrogen runoff from agricultural fertilizers, and second, micro-pollution by designer chemistry, that is, the drugs, pesticides, and other industrial chemicals which are routinely discharged and waterways without a great deal of thought for their long-term effects.

 Many people just shrug their shoulders and act like nothing can be done about this. What they don't understand that these long-term effects are very, very serious indeed, and likely to prove disastrous.

 In the next couple of posts, we'll speak about the textile industry and some positive developments there, and also compare the BP oil spill to the effect of US agricultural practices in the Midwest on the Gulf of Mexico.

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