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Drowning in Plenty June 18, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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Among the many ways we are dying here at the edge of America is the slow poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico by the farmers and lawn jockeys to the North and the subsequent loss of the seafood crop. Scientists once again gather to discuss what might be done about the flood of runoff nutrients from farms and lawns, runoff that results in massive algae blooms that kill off all the marine life in The Dead Zone.

While the result sounds like a Stephen King novel, it is not a fantasy. This year we expect 10,000 square miles to be empty of oxygen. What fish do not flee will die. According to the coastal advocacy group America’s Wetlands, Louisiana produces one-third of the nation’s seafood by dollar value, and is ranked second behind Alaska in by weight of seafood landed. In 1981, the value of those commerical fisheries was about $680 million. Sport fishing and constitute over $10 billion a year in economic activity. All of this is being taken away from us without compensation.

The simple fact is the Invisible Hand (and the men manipulating it from Washington) are perfectly happy to see prices for commodities like corn, wheat and soybeans triple over the last year or two. Much of this growth is inflated by corn-based ethanol, a blatant hoax to boost farm prices with no net reduction in energy consumption. It takes a lot of energy to grow corn and more to make it into ethanol. The end product is more expensive than gasoline and contains fewer BTUs (you burn more to go fewer miles). Then there is the problem of market speculators, deprived of their real estate gains, looking for some other way to make free money.

The end result is farmers who are flush with cash planting more acres in crops, rather than converting land into buffer zones to reduce runoff. There are no legal or economic consequences to this action, so the grain states of the mid-west grow wealthy off of the crop price boom, and our seafood industry dies from the resulting algae bloom.

If Congress doesn’t take some action, I have a simple solution. I proposed it before to force the federal government to compensate New Orleans for the damage caused by the Federal Flood. The state has the well established right to set pilotage fees. Set the fee for crop exports so high that they are no longer economically feasible. If any one suggests they would just take their crops to other ports, ask them where they plan to get the extra railroad cars necessary to move the crops that currently travel down the Mississippi by barge? Something I learned in North Dakota is there is a significant shortage of railway stock. A significant percentage of every year’s crop spoils on the ground when the grain elevators fill up because there aren’t enough cars to move the grain out.

If you would like a more reasonable suggestion: identify 10,000 square miles of potential buffer land currently in crops, and force them to take it out of production and plant and/or build buffer zones. (They can actually get paid for this when they plant marginal land in native plants because of the wildlife benefit).

When they rein in the farmers and give us our full share off shore revenue (and full compensation for the losses from the federal flood), we will let them have full use of the river again.