In the 1930s, there was the Tennessee Valley Authority. Its main job was
to control floods and bring electricity to a seven-state region. Today a
watershed trust’s missions would be different: to protect rivers and
fish, and to promote sustainable agriculture. Consider our largest watershed,
the Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio, which drains water and waste from twenty-five
states into the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1980s, fishers in the Gulf noticed
a growing “dead zone” during summer months, when fish and crustacean
populations plummeted. According to the EPA, the dead zone has now swelled
to some five thousand square miles. The problem is hypoxia, or absence of
dissolved oxygen. The proximate cause is overabundant algae growth that triggers
a cascade of effects that ultimately sucks oxygen out of the water.
What causes aquatic plants to grow so fast they overwhelm an entire ecosystem?
In a word, nutrients — the same nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous)
that farmers feed to their terrestrial crops. Excess nutrients run off the
soil and are washed down the Mississippi. In 1997, an interagency task force
was created to study the problem and recommend solutions. In 2001 it called
for “voluntary, practical, and cost-effective” actions by industry
and government. Unfortunately, so far not much has happened.
What if we considered the topsoil and flowing waters of the Mississippi
basin as a commons to be preserved for future generations? We might, then,
create a Mississippi Soil and Water Trust. The trust would hold all rights
to introduce fertilizers (and perhaps pesticides and herbicides) within the
basin. Its job would be to reduce chemical inputs to safe levels and to reward
farmers (and others) for proper stewardship of their land.
Each year the trust would sell a declining number of tradeable soil input
permits; manufacturers would bid for these. It would then recycle revenue
from permit sales to landowners who meet stewardship guidelines. This would
raise the cost of chemical-intensive agriculture while rewarding farmers
for being good land stewards.
Farmers’ crop yields might decline for a while, but their incomes
wouldn’t. In a decade or two, the Gulf would come back to life,
and farming in America’s heartland would be a lot more organic.
The transition time would depend on the rate at which the trust decreases
the number of
permits it issues. ... read
the whole chapter