As a child I used to run along the rivers of the Palouse near Spokane, next to fields of wheat that would reach out across the rolling hills like a wild fire. In the late evening of summer days the yellowing stalks of grain would glow crimson in the dusk. You might be imagining cool, clear water in these river beds, small ripples catching the day’s last light. A hundred years ago that was the case. Today these rivers are green, with signs warning people not to swim.
With the invention of petroleum based nitrogen during the Green Revolution, fertilizer became the cheapest way to produce a high volume of food. What before had come from manure and compost now was so concentrated that it started being used in bombs. Farmers, seeing the potential return, began increasing the amount of simple fertilizers added to their crops.
The problem was the majority of this fertilizer never got to the roots. With tillage and the deconstruction of topsoil, fertilizer had little to bond with. Like an animal looking for food, fertilizer follows gravity until it finds humus, a natural form of carbon created through the lifecycle of soil bacteria. As our humus levels washed away with industrial agriculture, fertilizer had little to keep it from moving into our water.
Called “algae blooms” by biologists, these fertilizers disrupt the natural ecosystem of streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, and aquifers, feeding algae that chokes out other plants, decreasing the food source for animals that live there. Or we drink it.
My grandmother calls as I’m putting in a window on the cabin.
“It hasn’t rained in months,” she says. “They’re calling for people to decrease water usage, but I don’t see anyone doing it. All the lawns are way too green.” My grandmother lives in San Francisco, which just experienced the most significant drought in 1,200 years according to researchers. As she talks I get a flashback to driving to see her as a kid, looking out the car window watching irrigation sprinklers in the San Joaquin Valley spraying hundreds of feet across the fields, men scratching among lettuce with hoes, water avaporating into steam in the air.