Last week I visited a dairy farm with my two year-old son. Complete with hayrides, homemade ice cream, cows mooing, and a bluegrass band, the fall festival provided us with some good, wholesome entertainment. My son giggled as the baby cows licked his hand, oohed and awed at the fluffy baby chicks, and, of course, consumed the decadent ice cream as if I had not fed him in weeks.
It was a memorable scene for us city-dwellers, but as my son climbed over hay bails and pretended to drive a tractor, I found myself longing for the ignorance of childhood. Because as he moved from one gleeful experience to the other, questions filled my mind as I took in each detail of the land and farming process. As I listened to the tour leader describe the careful separation of sick and antibiotic-treated cows during the milking process, I was unsatisfied with the mere assurances of this milk being separated from the milk bound for the grocers’ shelves or front doorsteps. I wanted to know, where did the “bad” milk go—down the drain? Driving past the chicken barn and cow fields and breathing in the air, pungent with what can only be described as “that farm smell,” made me wonder if they were taking appropriate measures to prevent contamination of surrounding streams, rivers, and even groundwater.
As I voiced some of these questions to my spouse and friends whose children also romped through the pastoral scene, most of them looked at me as if I was crazy and incapable of enjoying myself. “I’m sure a farm like this follows the rules. You worry too much,” my friend said. Again, a part of me wished for ignorance—in this case, my friend’s. In this farm’s defense, they at least appeared to be taking the initiative on many sustainable energy and soil conservation practices, but this was most likely not because of the rules or laws, especially when it came to water pollution.
You see, my son, my friends, and most of the individuals enjoying the farm festivities were blissfully unaware of how 40 years ago, when federal lawmakers passed one of the most ambitious and comprehensive pieces of environmental legislation known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), they left a gaping hole. Deeming the majority of farming operations “nonpoint source pollution” and exempting this industry from the CWA’s requirements, lawmakers left unchecked what has developed into one of the largest water pollution problems of our day. Even the small subset of farming operations that did come within the CWA’s permitting program and pollutant control standards (called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)) function in a vaguely regulated and largely unaccountable fashion.
Forgive the crude analogy, but the consequences of this statutory and regulatory gap are mounting into an ever-larger pile for farmer and city-dwellers alike. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, unregulated and regulated agriculture together contribute an estimated 45 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay. These pollutants are some of the primary contributors to the annual dead zones and algal blooms within the Bay, killing underwater grasses, fish, crabs, oysters, and more. Evidence of health impacts on humans stemming from agricultural-based water pollutants such as pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals, is also mounting. Studies have linked groundwater and surface water pollution from agriculture to contamination of drinking water.
What’s worse, both citizen and government efforts to fill this regulatory void have lead to an increasingly politicized and contentious relationship between concerned citizens, environmentalists, governments, and the farm industry. Significant amounts of time and money have been spent on developing voluntary incentives for unregulated farmers, such as nutrient credit trading programs and conservation grant programs, providing some opportunities for improvement but also ushering in additional troubles in transparency and accountability.
Back on the farm, where all of this was percolating in my head in response to my friend’s casual mention of my inability to enjoy the moment and stop worrying, I took a long look around. Ignorance perhaps was bliss, but it was not a solution to the very real problems of agricultural-based water pollution. Farmers work hard and provide an important product and service to our society, but that does not mean that they don’t have to do their part to keep our waters healthy and clean. Even more, all farmers—big or small—should be apart of the solution. The burden should not be born by the few that worry about their impacts on the health of the environment and people they support. I can only hope that as we celebrate the CWA’s successes of the past 40 years, that lawmakers, farmers, and citizens realize that this gap must be filled with mandatory pollutant control standards and mechanisms to ensure that everyone is accountable for doing their part. Then I can truly celebrate and enjoy my next scoop of ice cream on the farm with as much enthusiasm as my son.