I spent a few hours last week with Paul Wotzka, the former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hydrologist who has recently filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the agency. As we sat in his rural southeast Minnesota home near where the Whitewater River empties into the Mississippi, he gave me an informal version of the presentation he would have given to a state House committee on March 23—if his supervisors would have allowed him. Well, here is the presentation that committee missed out on. As you can see, the environmental trend lines Wotzka’s research lays out are troubling, but this Powerpoint isn’t exactly a threat to national security. So why the big fuss? It’s like this: in a climate where little questioning of the corn-bean-feedlot machine is tolerated, some may see these charts, graphs and bullet points as tantamount to treason. That’s because Wotzka’s research shows that planting more and more corn and soybeans in watersheds like the Whitewater is creating significant threats to the ecosystem. The trouble is, a lot of powerful interests are betting on the “more and more corn and beans” horse and don’t want any stumbling blocks tossed onto the track. The future of Paul Wotzka’s career may be in the hands of the courts, but we still have a chance to thank the hydrologist for serving the public’s interest, even when his research perturbs the powerful. An Aug. 11 fundraiser for Wotzka is an opportunity for people to support the kind of solid, publicly-funded science that helps you and me (and our lawmakers) make informed decisions.This lawsuit is about much more than whether a civil servant was wrongfully fired. This is about the public’s right to know and the First Amendment, as well as what influence agribusiness is having on the creation and execution of public policy. Wotzka is a big believer that as a state employee he owed the taxpaying public a return on its investment, and his presentation, which summarizes years of cutting-edge water quality research, shows it.
As this lawsuit progresses, a lot of issues will arise that while important, threaten to overshadow the heart of the matter: Wotzka’s research spotlights some very troubling trends. The bottom line is that more atrazine and other agricultural chemicals are making their way into the Whitewater River. The upward spike has been particulrly sharp since 2000, according to Wotzka’s monitoring. Let’s keep in mind that while Wotzka’s research took place on the Whitewater, similar trends are showing up in watersheds across Minnesota’s farm country.
Atrazine, a popular corn herbicide, has been highlighted recently, mostly because of research showing that it may have connections to endocrine disruption. More corn planted means more herbicides like atrazine are applied. That’s why there were attempts this past legislative session to keep closer tabs on atrazine and other chemicals.
But Wotzka’s presentation highlights another important trend (a trend, again, that’s being seen elsewhere in the state) in the Whitewater: levels of nitrogen in the river have also been going up since 2000. Nitrogen is a key crop nutrient and has been pegged as a major culprit in the development of the ever-widening Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. During the same years that pesticide and nitrogen levels went up, so did the amount of acreage in the watershed planted to corn and soybeans.
And going in the opposite direction is the amount of acres planted to perennial systems like pasture grass and hay. This is an important trend: University of Minnesota research in Lamberton and Waseca shows that a field planted to corn loses on average 49 pounds of nitrogen per acre annually. A field in alfalfa loses 1.6 pounds per acre each year.
Two different agricultural inputs, a common reason for their increased presence in the Whitewater: more row crops and less year-round plant cover such as grass and hay. It seems the timing of this shift to more annual row crops that cover the land only a few months out of the year couldn’t be worse from a meteorological point of view. Wotzka’s presentation points out that as climate change shifts the heaviest rainfall to the spring months when croplands are relatively bare of cover, water quality has suffered.
It doesn’t have to be this way, as research in the Wells Creek watershed right in the Whitewater’s backyard shows. Policies that encourage and support a more diverse agriculture could make a huge difference in Minnesota’s water quality. That doesn’t meen replacing all our corn and soybeans with grass. It just means making it so that farmers aren’t punished for diversifying out of wall-to-wall row crops, and seeking options that aren’t tied into the raw commodity export/ethanol machine.
Let’s not forget that at the center of this whistleblower lawsuit is solid science that we as taxpayers have paid for and that we ignore at our own risk. Lawmakers and others who make decisions affecting our landscape need such science to make good policy. But they can’t act on what they don’t know. Denying Paul Wotzka the opportunity to testify on March 23 hurt more than one man’s career—it slowed the enactment of good, long-overdue public policy. Let’s hope it was only a temporary delay.