RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Dead Zones Expanding to a Body of Water Near You

I’m declaring it here and now: The “Silly Season” has officially ended, and now we can get down to business. The Silly Season, for those who have forgotten their pre-Civil War word coinage, is the late-summer time when news cycles are slow and the media fills space by reporting on all sorts of non-essentials.

The term goes way back, but was re-popularized in a 1950s sci-fi short story by Cyril Kornbluth about mischievous aliens. The ETs pulled silly stunts, which were dutifully reported by the media until the public got bored. At the end of the story, the media stops covering the pranks, and then, in true sci-fi style, the spooky purpose of the conniving aliens is revealed.

But that’s just fiction, right? Here in the real world of 2016, the media remains vigilant, citizens ask the right questions, and politicians take their roles seriously. Ha! The “up-ballot” folks, running for national offices, have no idea how things are on the ground. But the “down-ballot” folks, working at the state, county, city level should be easier to work with. Especially when it comes to issues that affect our neighborhoods, schools, police, fire protection and city services. Those roles are filled by our neighbors, and we can go to meetings and talk to them directly, if only we take the time.

It’s candidate forum time, and I hope you’re preparing questions, arranging carpools to the events, and raising your hand to ask, “what will you make legal?” Because the pols can make it legal to dump raw sewage into streams, or to smoke marijuana, or to shoot your neighbor. They can do things that are very bad or very good. And, the effects of one legislative session can last for generations.

Here in Missouri, we had a very bad legislative session, capped off by a record number of governor vetoes that were overriden by the General Assembly. Among the overrides is a bill that will change the nature of the Clean Water Commission, a body of seven members supposed to watch the health of streams in our state. Instead of being peopled by caring citizens, the commission will have six members representing industry. So, Missouri’s next governor will be able to appoint a majority of commissioners who represent agribusiness, dirty coal, failed sewage plants and the like.

Think of the opportunity! Already, our waters are polluted with uncontrolled amounts of coal ash, insecticides, manure from Confined Animal Feeding Operations and overflow from underperforming sewage plants. The solution to pollution is dilution, they say, and no doubt nature has power to clean up much of our overflow, but nature has limits.

Missouri is gifted with the two major rivers — Mississippi and Missouri — that carry water to the Gulf of Mexico. In the Gulf, remember, there is a giant dead zone where nothing good can live. It might be characterized as an area where nature has given up. The combination of chemicals flowing into the Gulf has changed the composition of the water to a point where nature is past its limits and cannot do the clean-up work.

Dead zones are caused when huge amounts of phosphorous and other nutrients was from land, pumping up growth of algae and the loss of oxygen in water. When first noticed, back in the 1990s, they lasted a few days or a couple of weeks, but now the Dead Zones take up residence for months at a time.

In September, at the meeting in Green Bay, Wis., of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, I was shocked to learn that there are many dead zones in our national waters. There is a dead zone in Green Bay, a broad finger of water trapped between Wisconsin’s mainland and the Door County peninsula. And there is a Dead Zone in Ohio’s Maumee River that flows into Lake Erie. And there’s one in Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. And, the Mississippi has at least one dead zone, down near Missouri’s bootheel.

When attention is brought to these problems, the EPA reacts and, eventually, taxpayer money is spent on some kind of clean-up, providing a benefit to industry. But we should pay more attention. These dead zones create living proof — make that dying proof — that there is a definite limit on how much we can dump. We might call it the natural law, which is opposed to the human-made law. But it shouldn’t be. Humans need to make laws that match nature’s. Because our legal system allows the dumping and our economic system absolutely condones it, our water system is suffering.

Water quality might not be your hot-button this election, but surely there’s something you believe needs work. So, celebrate the end of the silly season by going to candidate forums and posing important questions to those who want to hold the reins of your local government.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts “Farm and Fiddle” on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2016

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