A recent guest editorial in the Des Moines Register makes an interesting observation about water quality in agricultural states -- it stinks.
The authors state that Iowa has a double standard concerning sewage. That is, there are significant and costly regulations for point sources, such as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment facilities that discharge into rivers and streams, but virtually no regulation of non-point discharges, like the transporting and spreading of manure on farmland that then washes off into the waterways. According to the authors:
If state officials hope to stop the degradation of Iowa’s waters, it does not make sense to ignore the agricultural component, which accounts for at least 90 percent of our water pollution.
To be sure, it’s hard to argue against cleaner water. But is it fair to impose a new regulatory and financial burden on cities and urban industries, while continuing to allow industrial agriculture to spread untreated sewage into the land?
The authors conclude that the agricultural, non-point sources should be held to the same standard as point sources and suggest that agricultural discharges should be required to pass through a wastewater treatment facility, though the article fails to mention the staggering cost of that proposal.
It’s certainly an interesting point, and it is not unique to Iowa or the United States. The Clean Water Act has always given a free ride to non-point pollution sources. Though it may make no scientific sense to say that a 40-acre field that has agricultural runoff is somehow different from a 40-acre field that is being prepared for a subdivision, that has been the regulatory scheme for decades. And it has been true despite the fact that, as pointed out by the authors, the vast majority of water contamination can be attributed to non-point sources.
In the past, even the mention of imposing such costs on agriculture, a significant employer in many state economies, was political suicide -- and maybe it will continue to be. But as EPA and state environmental agencies begin to force more and more costly regulation on point sources (for example, storm water runoff from construction sites), those same sources are going to start pressing the question of why non-point sources, which are significantly larger polluters, are virtually exempt from expensive regulation. It may be that it’s going to become harder and harder to keep this cow sacred. At a minimum, it’s going to make for an interesting debate.