The Food and Environmental Reporting Network released a striking report this week (Sept. 18) describing how industrial agriculture and climate change are fueling massive blooms of toxic algae:

Blooms have closed lake beaches or led to swimming advisories from Vermont’s Lake Champlain to Dorena Reservoir in Oregon and from Florida’s Caloosahatchee River to Wisconsin’s Lake Menomin. In addition to the health risks, the blooms take an economic toll. An estimate by Walter Dodds of Kansas State University conservatively puts the annual cost of freshwater algal blooms at more than $1 billion from lost recreation and depressed property values.

slide show of horrific images of water tainted by agriculture pollution accompanied the report.

The report noted that no federal agency tracks the occurrence of freshwater algal blooms, but experts say they’re getting worse, driven by fertilizer and manure running off farm fields and into lakes and streams. Earth’s warming climate multiplies the effects.

Dead zones in the oceans are also a direct result of the farm chemicals that pour off agricultural land. The most notorious is the one in the Gulf of Mexico, which grew to the size of New Jersey before the current drought. As a 2007 report by MSNBC described:

The nation’s corn crop is fertilized with millions of pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer. And when that nitrogen runs off fields in Corn Belt states, it makes its way to the Mississippi River and eventually pours into the Gulf, where it contributes to a growing “dead zone” – a 7,900-square-mile patch so depleted of oxygen that fish, crabs and shrimp suffocate.

Industrial agriculture, not manufacturing, gas drilling or mining, is the largest contributor to America’s water pollution problem. And despite its high cost to taxpayers and businesses, most farm operations are exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, and state governments have little authority to compel farmers to control contamination from their fields.

Iowa, in particular, is a major contributor to the Gulf dead zone, and state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey recently copped to the economic impact that its farmers’ pollution has on Gulf fisheries and the jobs that depend on them:

We certainly don’t see the results of poor shrimp fishing in Iowa, or southeast Iowa, or anyplace in Iowa, but it is something that we all share, and we care about water quality.

But Northey won’t countenance any actual government action to deal with the problem of widespread agricultural pollution. “This won’t get fixed by regulations,” he told the Times-Republican in Marshalltown, Iowa, “but through volunteer efforts.”

The reality is that “volunteer efforts” are largely underwritten by taxpayers through government programs that pay farmers to reduce pollution. The same people who are paying the price for contaminated water and decimated fisheries also, it seems, get stuck paying the tab for fixing the problem at its source. Taxpayers, of course, are also shouldering the staggering cost of farm subsidies and government-financed crop insurance.

People who feel the environmental and economic effects of farm pollution downriver in the battered Gulf region have a different view of voluntary remedies. In July 2011, the editorial board of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote:

What is needed is a meaningful effort to reduce nutrient pollution that comes down the river – nitrates and phosphates that are used in agriculture. So far, those efforts have been voluntary, and ineffective.

Even though the dead zone this year is smaller than feared, the federal government and states that drain into the Mississippi need to finally get serious about the pollution that causes it.

And on July 31 of this year, the Times-Picayune opined again:

Unfortunately, those efforts to reduce nutrients have been voluntary and obviously not very effective.

But as for the dead zone itself, the cause is obviously fertilizer use, and meaningful attempts to reduce nutrient runoff are long overdue.

It is way past time to face the facts. Voluntary efforts alone are not getting the job done. Farmers must be required to take simple but effective measures to stem pollution in return for the generous support they receive from federal taxpayers. And states must have the authority and courage to rein in egregious farming practices that cause a disproportionate share of the pollution that leads to more and more dangerous algal blooms.