October 26, 2021

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Informative World

Nitrogen – Friend or Foe?

Check with your nearest lawn and garden shop and you will discover that nitrogen makes things green. It also makes things grow. We do not see nitrogen but we benefit greatly from it, as any farmer will tell you. Lawn, garden and crop fertilizers have three essential elements that relate in various proportions to plant growth, root growth and fruit production. They are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. These elements account in large measure for the ever-increasing crop yields in the world today, right along with the beautiful green lawns and flowers that adorn our homes, streets, parks and cities.

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The wastewater industry will tell you, however, that these elements are no friends of wastewater. They are to be found in human excrement. In particular, nitrogen in the form of nitrates and phosphorous threaten water quality on a scale never before experienced water damage Chicago. These elements promote growth of organisms in the water, leading to the growth of algae, death of fish, increase of disease- causing organisms, water too dangerous to drink and too dangerous for swimming. When the quality of water deteriorates the health danger to humans goes up.

The Problem

Today the concerns being voiced are about nutrients in general but nitrates in particular. Soil absorbs nitrogen. Whatever grows in that soil utilizes nitrogen as nutrition. But when there is too much going into the soil or the soil is sandy, porous or heavy with clay the nitrogen is not absorbed. Instead it seeps into the groundwater and then into the sea, rivers, lakes, shallow aquifers and wells. In a nutshell, there is hell to pay.

We are a nation that has forever put our sanitary waste into the ground or into our water. The wisdom was that water and ground were perfectly capable of absorbing the waste and processing it back to harmless or even helpful quality levels, free of disease and useful to the environment. Of course the conventional wisdom did not take into account what happens when the population bunches up. Relying on the conventional wisdom got us to thousands of deaths from cholera in the drinking water, the Chesapeake Bay contamination, dangerous wells and warnings all over the country not to eat the fish we catch. There are limits to what Mother Nature can do. We are rapidly approaching those limits.

It is easy to notice populations massing by the millions in places like the Texas-Mexican border, New York City, Chicago and other large cities around the world. It takes a little more stretching of our minds, however, to comprehend that more than half of the people in the United States are bunching up in the wrong places. After all, our landmass is so large. People live everywhere. How can this be? The answer is that 55% of our population lives within 50 miles of a coast. Coastal soils tend to be porous, allowing wastewater to seep into the sea. And the estimates are that the coastal population of our country increases by 2600 people a day. Like lemmings, we are going towards the oceans.

Nobody in their right mind would dispute that something is wrong when rivers turn weird colors and smell to high heaven. But with nutrients this is not necessarily the case. Nutrient-laden water does not change colors or smell until after the damage has been done. Nutrients are not something we see. It is only when they have promoted algae growth or led to fish kill or set disease in motion that we actually realize something has gone very wrong.