In Jim Cook's Archive


The tragic red tide outbreak in southwest Florida has been in the news this summer. The death toll of fish, porpoises and sea turtles has reached tragic proportions. Rotting fish are piled high on the beaches and the stench is unbearable. The once crowded beaches are empty and in places the emerald blue ocean has turned the color of sewage.

I had a friend years ago by the name of Jerome Smith. He wrote the definitive work on silver in the early 1970’s. He would often say that when any new problem occurs, if you look hard enough you will find that the government was responsible. Red tide is not an algae, it’s a bacteria. It feeds and grows on nitrates and phosphorous that are the stuff of agricultural fertilizers. The giant Lake Okeechobee in south-central Florida is full of these chemicals. They wash in from ditches that drain land owned by large sugar cane growers. The ditches were paid for by the government and the sugar companies are heavily subsidized by the government.

Lake Okeechobee was damned up by the government and the ditches that crisscross the Everglades were mostly government projects. When the water in the lake gets high it must be released because it threatens to burst the dikes that the government built and flood thousands of acres. Okeechobee’s water polluted with nutrients runs down the Caloosahatchee River into the ocean. Before the government started messing with the Everglades, water ran for miles to the southern tip of Florida and the plant life absorbed any nutrients in it. Highways like I-75 and Alligator Alley now block that flow.

In my opinion, wetland drainage is a greater threat to the environment than global warming. For example, there is a huge dead zone where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf of Mexico. This massive area of eutrophication is the size of Rhode Island and no life exists within it. The cause of this environmental disaster is the buildup of farm fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that originate on midwestern farm fields. They find their way into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers through a network of drainage ditches that crisscross Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota and other midwestern states.

At one time these states held hundreds of thousands of lakes, ponds, and marshes that are now ditched out and gone. Of course the government paid for it all. The damage doesn’t end in the Gulf. Our rivers have been muddied and ruined by siltation. Our lakes have turned green with a runaway growth of algae. In Minnesota half of our 10,000 lakes have been deemed unfit to swim in and you can’t eat the fish. They say that global warming will cause the oceans to rise. What about the millions of acres of water that drain off our land into the ocean?

In eastern North Dakota half of the wetlands are gone. And that water along with drainage from Minnesota makes its way north to Hudson Bay. Along the way it periodically floods Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota and Winnipeg, Manitoba. The entire Mississippi River system is subject to the same downstream flooding caused by wetland drainage. Worst of all, drainage projects continue to this day.

If it sounds like I am on a soapbox, it’s because I have fought against drainage projects and preached against the destruction of our wetlands most of my adult life. A few years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave me the National Wetlands Conservation Award for restoring over 600 wetlands in Minnesota and North Dakota.

To be fair, the Fish and Wildlife Service has many dedicated government employees who preserve and protect our remaining wetlands. However, the damage to the environment from agricultural chemicals gets worse by the year. The government had a lot to do with causing it and now they should find a way to stop it.

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