The Nefarious Connection Between Agriculture and Our Rivers (Part 4 of 4)

By Brad Walker – Rivers Director, with illustrations and other contributions from Joe Mohr

Part 4: Solutions

In the three (1, 2, 3) previous segments of this series we have discussed the problems created on and within our rivers when special interests work together to manipulate the political system.

In order to justify the destruction of a river, the economic return to the public should have been huge. The reality has been quite the opposite. What has actually occurred are private and corporate gain, accompanied by huge public losses and public obligations for generations to come.

Our political system unfortunately continues to enrich a small group of private citizens and corporations at the expense of the general public. We have paid the costs of building and maintaining this artificial barge canal system and the accreted farmland while we have also lost billions in yearly economic and intrinsic values of these eliminated ecosystem services. With this massive public expenditure and wealth transfer (see the report showing the 90% subsidy of the barge industry) to the river agricultural interests we have also seemingly locked ourselves into an agricultural system that is unsustainable in all regards; a system which primarily grows crops that are not meant for human consumption. This is becoming even more disconcerting when we consider the vulnerability of the area where we actually get most of our food, California’s Central Valley, which continues in a worsening 500-year drought (Figure 4-1). Paradoxically, California’s water scarcity problems are being exacerbated by equally destructive crop choice decisions driven solely for financial gain.
California Drought Map 7-15-14
In our current mode of river restoration every decision is based upon maintaining the Congressionally-mandated (and special interest influenced) primacy of navigation, regardless of the actual benefit navigation provides the public. This translates into costly artificial and minimal true restoration with mounting annual operation and maintenance costs.

To add insult to injury, through the restoration efforts to reconnect the floodplains the taxpayers too often pay a premium price for land that their tax dollars reclaimed from the river for farming.

Things need to change, and drastically.

The Our Future? report we have mentioned lists ten recommendations on page 42. They are long-term solutions, which will require changing not just our landscape but our mindset as well. The historical natural resources abundance of our country has erroneously allowed us to forget that we are completely reliant upon a healthy environment and the resources that nature provides. We must acknowledge that we now live in a resource-constricted world and we have to adjust. Below we touch on several of the report’s recommendations in the bullets:

•  While world (and growing national) hunger continues, the corporate “Feeding the World” campaign serves up only higher earnings for their shareholders (Figure 4-2). Many food and agriculture experts believe that a diverse, localized agricultural system is not only more resilient; but is more egalitarian, safer for our health and the environment, and provides food security and variety that our current system lacks. Smaller farms that are holistically managed using current knowledge need to replace the huge monoculture agri-businesses that we have allowed to develop.

•  Agriculture has been exempted from the Clean Water Act’s requirements for nonpoint source dischargers since the law was written in 1972. Voluntary compliance and other measures to control this pollution have been ineffective and depend upon large portions of the cost burden being assumed by the taxpayers. The exemption needs to be eliminated requiring the agriculture industry to meet standards for clean water.

•  The navigation system constructed on most of our large rivers uses oversized barges that required massive hydrological alterations to float them. Navigation, and the boats used on our rivers must evolve to co-exist within a much more natural river.

•  Both the financial and environmental costs of re-engineering our floodplain rivers into barge canals are unsustainable. Our “waterways” need to be returned to actual rivers primarily through the reconnection of the floodplains, restoration of wetlands, and ultimately the removal of many navigation structures.

Propaganda cartoon
The public benefits of a healthy river must take precedence over the taxpayer subsidized profits of corporations. The status quo is bankrupting us.
We believe that we must move from our current policies and actions that manage our rivers solely for human short-term benefit, to policies that manage our economic and other activities within the long-term capacity of the river system. Ultimately, this will help move us closer to a truly sustainable society.

To do that, Congress must return to serving the humans that elect them, and not the corporations that currently overly influence their decisions. Please communicate with your Senators and Representative asking them to make real change for the future of our rivers.

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