For Release October 29, 2002

The Web of Life is Far Reaching

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

Which is more important: corn production in Iowa or shrimp off the coast of Louisiana? And does one have anything to do with the other or should we even care? These very questions are being asked right now by corn producers in the Mississippi River drainage area (which includes part or all of 19 states, Kansas included) as well as Gulf of Mexico shrimpers.

Hereís the situation. For at least the last 17 years, and probably longer, marine biologists have been monitoring an area in the Gulf of Mexico for oxygen levels. This area is essentially the location where the Mississippi River drains and diffuses into the ocean. By midsummer, the oxygen levels start to dip and then plummet so close to zero, that normal marine animals either have to leave the area or die.

Every year, since monitoring was started in 1985, the area has grown larger. This year, the area of oxygen poor waters, known as hypoxia, was 8,500 square miles in size. This is roughly the size of the sate of Massachusetts, or the combined areas of the counties from Dickinson County to Shawnee County to Nemaha County to Washington County and back to Dickinson, inclusive.

The area becomes oxygen depleted because of large increases in algae populations. These algae blooms are triggered by increases in nitrogen levels in the water. The nitrogen comes not only from crop fields, but also from fertilizer applied to urban lawns and effluent from wastewater treatment facilities. The algae grow rapidly, they die and after they die microbes break down the algae and it is this that depletes the oxygen.

In the natural world we have ecosystems. Ecosystem is just a fancy term that describes the entire collection of living organisms, from microbes to people, that exist within a given set of confines. Humans often try to exclude themselves from their ecosystem. We act like what we do doesnít impact the natural world around us. But the truth is, that everything we do impacts the entire world around us, and often the world hundreds or thousands of miles away.

We build hydroelectric dams because itís a good way to generate electricity. But then, 25 or 50 years later we realize that weíve destroyed the natural balance of the river and many of the fish that live in it. We clear the trees and brush from the banks of rivers, streams or lakes thinking that we are beautifying the natural setting or because we can farm more land. But then we destabilize the banks and increase water erosion and put more soil into the water. Everything we do truly does create a long line of dominoes each one being impacted by the one before and impacting the one after.

I watched water running off a parking lot the other day. It was great to see the rain, but in that runoff water, headed for the storm sewer drain, was an obvious film of oil. This oil wonít just go away. Itíll join with the runoff from other parking lots and eventually make it to a river or pond somewhere downstream. And what domino impact will it have then?

We live on this planet too. As meddling humans we think we know whatís right for the natural world because we havenít learned to observe all itís complexities. So in our effort to do right, we often do more wrong. We all have to take more time to think beyond ourselves, beyond our wallet even beyond our time on this planet. We have to make sure that we are thinking of all the dominoes that are going to be impacted by every action we take.


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