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Clean Water or Green Water: How We Produce Our Food Is Sliming Our Water

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As Labor Day approaches and I savor the last days of summer, I think about all the fun I've had in and on the water. Jumping into my favorite swimming holes in the eastern Sierras and up near Bolinas. Canoeing across Potter pond in Rhode Island and diving in Monterey.

Many Americans have not been so lucky, and instead faced unfriendly "Stay Out Of the Water" signs at their favorite lakes and rivers (see slide show below or here). This summer alone, at least 19 states across the U.S. issued health warnings about blue-green algae growth, which releases toxins into the air and water that can harm people and even kill dogs and other pets. Algae "blooms" also die off and decompose, a process that robs water of the oxygen that fish and other critters need.

The Midwest farm belt was particularly hard hit. Sadly, businesses that cater to (and rely on) summer tourism suffer, not to mention the health and well-being of local residents. Last month, two dogs died hours after they jumped into an algae-infested Indiana lake, which had ten times the amount of algae considered dangerous to public health.

What does this have to do with ocean health? It turns out that the same chemical fertilizer, manure runoff, and stormwater and sewage discharges that feed the algae growth that leads to the vast "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico also spurs the growth of inland algae blooms.

NRDC and many partner organizations have taken action to protect our water and urge stronger federal action. We recently filed two lawsuits against the U.S. EPA concerning algae-fueling pollution, including one demanding it acknowledge that current state regulations are not doing enough to control such pollution and prevent the Dead Zone, and set numeric limits on such pollutants. We've also pushed EPA to step up its oversight of industrial livestock operations, which can produce as much waste as a city and which rarely treat the wastes they produce, and we're working with the agency to reform the national requirements governing sources of urban and suburban storm-water pollution. This is a national problem, and demands national solutions.

An additional solution is to support farmers who use more efficient fertilizer management and conservation farming practices that reduce agriculture runoff. A recent USDA study found that only 14% of farmers are implementing smart fertilizer management, so more needs to be done to make these practices the norm rather than the exception.

Unfortunately, Congress is struggling to pass a new Farm Bill this year, and with it a re-authorization of funding for conservation programs that support these practices. The bad news for farmers is the current Farm Bill proposals include harsh austerity cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and other conservation programs. Demand for CSP far outstrips supply even without the proposed cuts, and the program currently turns away about half the farmers who apply.

What can you do? Well for starters you can call for Congress to pass a Farm Bill that funds these conservation programs. And buying your produce locally, from sustainable farmers who take steps to protect our soil and water, is always a good bet. You also can tell EPA you don't think too highly of its hands-off approach to industrial livestock facilities.

By supporting farmers who protect water quality, you'll be making a difference in whether we have clean water or slimy green water, from our rivers to our seashores. Let's make sure everyone can enjoy the simple pleasures of summertime! Whether it's fishing in the Gulf of Mexico or just cooling-off with a refreshing swim in the lakes and streams we've enjoyed since our childhood. Safe, clean water is something we all treasure -- and must protect.

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