The importance of water, not just locally, but how it impacts people and communities across the region and country can not be understated. Looking at the waterways in the US, it’s clear to see the interconnectedness. How should that impact our stewardship of rainfall, agriculture, and fisheries?
To begin to frame an answer to that question we must consider the complexity of our system of waterways in the US.
The following map illustrates the annual flow of the major river systems in the US. The major systems include the Columbia in the northwest, the Missouri out of the Northern Rockies, the Mississippi, the Colorado, the Ohio, and the collective waterways that flow east of the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s clear that each system is fed by many smaller rivers and streams. For example, the Missouri and Yellowstone feed into the Mississippi which later accepts the Ohio. This web of creeks, streams, and rivers is a complex system that sustains and grants life to countless species of plants and animals.
A Closer Look
Consider this: Our flagship Edible Learning Lab sits on the banks of Clear Creek which flows out of the Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming. Clear Creek flows into the Powder River north of town. Across the Montana border, the Powder River flows into the Yellowstone which then merges with the Missouri in northwest North Dakota. From there the Missouri heads southeast cutting through South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas before flowing into the Mississippi on the Missouri and Illinois border. The Mississippi then heads south along the western edge of Kentucky and Tennessee, between Arkansas and Mississippi, before passing through Louisiana just before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s 14 different states that see the water that passes by our Lab in Buffalo, WY!
Issues to Manage
It’s all connected. In one way or another, what you do upstream affects those that live downstream. The chemical fertilizers that a conventional farmer sprays on his crops in one state will impact the water supply for a town a few states away. Our interconnectedness exists on many levels and perhaps the one that is most threatened at the moment is the natural world we all share.
So our stewardship of these shared natural resources, including water and wildlife, must be managed not just for today but also for tomorrow.
Leave some for those downstream. I’m not sure that it could be stated more simply than that. We must protect our water sources so that everyone has access. The agreement that originally granted access to the water of the Colorado River was based on 4 years of historically high rainfall. To this day the agreement has not been revised to reflect the annual rainfall that has failed to fully recharge the river. The seven states that pull water from the Colorado River must step up and strike a balance that works not just for them but for those communities in Mexico that also pull from the same source. This drama is playing out around the world with countless waterways.
The effects of pesticide and herbicide use in agriculture and the discharge from industrial production have an immense impact downstream to water supplies and to the insect and wildlife populations. Of course, it also impacts us.
Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species because they are sprayed or spread across entire agricultural fields. Rains and flood irrigation produce runoff, distributing these chemicals far and wide. In fact, the chemicals used in conventional agriculture and those produced by industrial activity find their way into countless water sources. In the United States, pesticides were found to pollute every stream and over 90% of wells sampled in a study by the US Geological Survey. Pesticide residues have also been found in rain and groundwater. Studies by the UK government showed that pesticide concentrations exceeded those allowable for drinking water in some samples of river water and groundwater.
Tainted waterways, like rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans have a direct and immediate impact on the fish population. The Yellow River in China has been devastated by more than 4 million tons of industrial waste each year which has resulted in a 40% decline in its fishing catch.
But the buildup typically occurs over years of industrial mismanagement and the continual runoff of pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals affect plants and insects that are the primary food sources for many fish species. Additionally, the presence of such chemicals can reduce river bottom cover having a profound effect on the reproductive process for many species. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, many of the herbicides currently used today can reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water stressing and even killing fish in a fixed environment like a pond or slow moving stream. You can dive deeper in this article from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Our actions affect countless others and it’s time to take that responsibility to heart. Our waterways provide drinking water, food, and wildlife habitat. They also serve a plethora of functions in the greater ecosystem. The way we farm has a direct effect on these systems. The industries we depend on also play a role. Accepting responsibility and being accountable as stewards is of paramount importance.