Why is Regulating Agriculture Pollution Off the Table?

Water pollution in America from agriculture is a big problem getting bigger. This morning it was reported that the drinking water for Des Moines, Iowa is so fouled with farm field pollution that they have to now spend $7,000 a day on a special nitrate removal system. In a statement the Des Moines Waterworks said:

Use of the nitrate removal facility is the last step available to maintain safe drinking water.

This summer, the city of Toledo, Ohio lost access to drinking water for three days due to a similar problem. When major U.S. cities have their drinking water threatened by agriculture pollutants, common sense suggests the problem should become politically untenable. What politician no matter their party stripes is against access to clean drinking water as a basic right?

On Wednesday, December 3rd the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing called Farmers and Fresh Water: Voluntary Conservation to Protect our Land and Waters. In that hearing it quickly became clear Congress is doing absolutely zero to realistically address the problem.

There was the laughable assertion in the hearing that farmer “peer pressure” will help solve the problem. Farmers’ main motivation is money – either the threat of losing it or the promise of making it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Farming is a business.

The Senate hearing focused mainly on voluntary conservation, which are essentially federal taxpayer-funded conservation subsidies paid to farmers to engage in stewardship efforts.

From 1995-2012 taxpayers have funded $39 billion in these payments to American farmers. These programs have made a difference. And it’s hard to envision how bad water quality would be without them. But voluntary conservation programs have demonstrably failed to protect Toledo and Des Moines, and have miserably failed to lessen damage from dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay. And plenty of important folks on the ground in afflicted areas like Des Moines and the Gulf agree about their infectiveness.

The only other option that could have an immediate impact is regulation. Farmers currently enjoy an exemption under the Clean Water Act for their “non-point” source pollution, aka field run-off.

But the only mentions of regulation in the hearing came from Republican Senators contractually obligated to pummel EPA’s Waters of the US rule. Hearing speaker Sean McMahon mentioned regulation as well. McMahon is the Executive Director of the Iowa Agriculture Alliance, an organization created by Iowa soybean, corn and hog farmers. McMahon said (pdf):

I personally believe that regulating non-point agricultural runoff in Iowa would be a very expensive and ineffective experiment due to the scale and variability of agriculture in Iowa.

As expensive and ineffective as voluntary conservation? McMahon obviously prefers our current model of shooting $3.7 billion out of a cannon over the “scale and variability of agriculture in Iowa” and hoping it lands where pollution is occurring. This is the same guy that said:

I believe that the concept of having downstream water and ratepayers pay for some upstream land changes is a proven one.

Downstream customers – taxpayers – to pay for farmers’ pollution? And really, after $25 billion in total subsidies to Iowa farmers and water utility rate hikes, what’s another dollar or two out taxpayers’ pockets? McMahon is not alone in Iowa in his belief that taxpayers should fork over more for farm pollution cleanup.

“We have millions of acres on which we need to implement this stuff,” said Chris Jones, an environmental scientist with the Iowa Soybean Association who has studied the Raccoon River. He said fixing the problem would cost billions of dollars.

And here’s the Republican Iowa Secretary of Agriculture asking for $15 million in state funds to help fight water pollution.

I get it. Regulation is a tough sell. EPA’s WOTUS rule, which would address some of these problems, is having an increasingly harder time getting off the mat after every congressional haymaker. But rural “conservative” lawmakers are just standing by while billions are spent and water quality still sucks. How many times since Obama was elected has a conservative lawmaker gnashed teeth and rendered hair over Big Government Spending?

It’s instructive to think back to 2009 and the Waxman Markey climate change bill. The farm lobby helped torpedo that bill. Had it passed, farmers would be getting paid to reduce their fertilizer. Now the farm lobby is begging for billions to help pay for their mess. As U.S water continues its quality decline will rural Republicans continue to support billions in conservation spending?

Thankfully, in lieu of any real regulation on the horizon, there are other options out there.

Crop insurance subsidies should be leveraged to maximize farmer conservation efforts. The head of the free market think tank R Street recently wrote in the National Review “strong conservation compliance rules can save hundreds of millions of dollars and protect many environmentally sensitive areas.”

And my old employer the Environmental Defense Fund is working on innovative market solutions. They have an impressive roster of food companies already encouraging farmers to reduce fertilizer through the supply chain. Politicians should be rushing to embrace it.

Don Carr

1 Comment

  1. If you ask rhetorical questions, the brain and mind have a strong tendency to not look for answers. If that is not a rhetorical question, then I have several reasons why ag pollution should not be regulated, but of course, still addressed.