Minnesota Farmer

How old is your water?

At a recent Farm Bureau meeting I was sitting in on a seminar on water issues when one of the presenters mentioned aging water.  Whoa, that was a new one.  I didn’t know that you could tell the age of water.

Being able to age water has implications for the conversations farmers, lawmakers and environmental groups have been having.  For years now I have been listening to people blame farmers for many of the ills found in our rivers, streams and wells.  If we can age water, we can tell if those problems are from todays farming practices or those of the past, and I know that how we farm today is very different from how we farmed 50 and more years ago.

So first off, how do you age water?  Well, if you want the whole scientific process, I invite you to check out some scholarly papers such as this one from the U.S. Geological survey (USGS).  For a bit more on the implications of water age in the Chesapeake Bay estuary check this USGS paper.

Now I know most of you will not read these papers, so here is the short version.  There are elements that are taken in by water as it falls.  One of those compounds, Tritium (3H or hydrogen-3), a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, has a known breakdown time.  Another compound, chlorofluorocarbons, a group of stable manmade compounds containing chlorine and fluorine, are only present in water from during the years of its manufacture and use.  Using these elements we can find out when the rain water fell.  This helps us find travel time for water from raindrop to point of sample, whether that sample be taken in a well, river, lake or the ocean.

At issue for farmers is the claim that the nitrogen and other pollutants found in water today are the direct result of our actions today.  The study of the Chesapeake Bay area has found that water in the bay can be aged from less than a year, to centuries with an average age of about 30 years.  That means that problems in our waters have their roots over a generation ago.

Nitrogen is an interesting element.  It makes up most of the air we breathe and is both a requirement for, and a waste product of, life.  In particular nitrogen helps promote plant life.  Nitrogen in the soil has several forms.  Some of those forms are stable and will stay where they are put, but the form needed by plants ties to water, and thus it moves with water either into plants or deeper into the soil and eventually into our rivers and lakes.  Once in lakes it promotes plant life that makes water green with algae and green water is not appreciated by those who use water.

This now leads us to Total Daily Maximum Load (TMDL), the amount of pollutants found in waters of our country, and what part of that amount that farmers should be held accountable.  For all of my 60 years I have heard agriculture educators promote farming practices that reduce erosion and nutrient waste.  Farmers have been following the practices of these educators and are a bit upset that we are still being blamed for so much of todays pollution in water.  When you are doing all that is being asked of you, all that modern science tells you to do, what more can you do.

Aging water has helped us to understand that it is the practices of years ago that we are dealing with today.  Eventually the waters of our country will get better, but it is going to take time before the practices of today show up in rivers and lakes.  In the meantime, the family farmers who produce 95% of our countries food will continue to do their best to follow the laws and regulations that reduce pollution.  We live on the land, and it is our children that will be the first ones effected by any pollution.  It is our job to protect the future of life, and we take  the job seriously.



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