The Devil's Element by Dan Egan

The Devil's Element by Dan Egan

Author:Dan Egan
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Published: 2023-02-02T00:00:00+00:00

While Lake Erie suffers because Ohio government officials have refused to force even modest steps to make the phosphorus assault on Lake Erie stop, it is a different story about 450 miles to the northwest on Wisconsin’s Green Bay. Or at least it should be.

The 120-mile-long arm of western Lake Michigan is something of an ecological twin to the western basin of Lake Erie in that it is shallow, warm, fish-filled—and it, too, is being suffocated by massive algae blooms. Unlike the regulators in Ohio, Wisconsin environmental officials declared the southern portion of Green Bay “impaired” under the Clean Water Act over a decade ago. That required the state to put the phosphorus-overloaded bay on a nutrient diet. It has yet to make much of a difference because the state can make any plan it wants, but it can’t do much to force farmers to change their polluting ways, even as farmers continue to ratchet up the size of their operations. A half century ago (at the time the Clean Water Act was passed), a farmer with one hundred cows was considered a big operator. Now some Wisconsin dairy herds have as many as eight thousand cows.

A general guideline for sustainable dairy farming is that each grazing cow requires roughly two to three acres of pasture. It’s not an exact number because soil types, weather patterns, and pasture grasses vary. But that much land is basically what is required to not only to generate enough grass to sustain a cow, but also for the land to safely absorb the manure that cow produces. And that manure then fertilizes the pasture’s grasses, the cow grazes on them, and then the cow poops some more so more grass can grow. And on and on it goes—a virtuous cycle.

Those days are long gone for so many farms across the country, including in Wisconsin’s aptly named Brown County on the southern end of Green Bay. The rapidly suburbanizing county in the heart of “America’s Dairyland” is home to some 125,000 head of livestock squeezed onto roughly 190,000 agricultural acres. Most of the Brown County cows today don’t graze pastures but are kept in barns and fed farm-raised grain. And each of those cows can produce, by some estimates, eighteen times the amount of fecal waste a human does. None of it gets treated at the Green Bay public sewage treatment plant. Much of it ends up in the bay of Green Bay, where it triggers algae blooms and oxygen-starved dead zones so severe that fish are literally trying to escape from their own waters, Dr. Seuss-style. Homeowners along the shores of Green Bay have actually used leaf blowers to try to push thousands of flopping, asphyxiating fish back into the water.

“How long could you survive with a plastic bag on your head?” a biologist who investigated one of Green Bay’s massive fish die-offs once asked me, “because that is what these poor fish are going through.”

I grew up in the 1970s less than a


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