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PERCENT OF IMPAIRED STREAM MILES AFFECTED
Only 16% of the nation's 3.5 million miles of streams has been assessed for water quality. Less than half — 44% — are impaired by (in descending order) pathogens, habitat alteration, organic enrichment/oxygen depletion, unknown causes, nutrients, metals, sediment, mercury, flow alteration, and turbidity. Source: U.S. EPA

With commodities prices double and even triple average due to drought-induced shortages, let's pick a long-overdue fight by pressuring the agricultural industry to share the pain of restoring the nation's waters. The rest of us are tapped out.

Cities represent most of the population but little of the problem. Farms represent a tiny population but most of the problem. At StormCon, the annual gathering of stormwater regulators, managers, and vendors, EPA staffers made it pretty clear there won't be much, if any, federal revolving-loan funding specifically for stormwater control. Grant levels are laughable: $950,000 (total) recently went to 17 green infrastructure projects in 16 states. Meanwhile, the largest and most dangerous polluter remains virtually unregulated. (Visit here for the most recent example.)

It's unclear whether farms have been exempt since the Clean Water Act in 1972 or the law was amended to exclude them. Either way, until the industry is made accountable for the consequences of fundamentally unsustainable practices — draining the nation's largest aquifer in less than 50 years (visit here), creating markets to offload excess product (ethanol, concentrated animal feeding operations), jacking up soil with nitrogen instead of letting land lie fallow — the rest of us will continue to pay the price. Literally. Doesn't seem fair.

Farmers would disagree, especially now when all operations are suffering and some are being wiped out. But these are extremely unusual conditions; farmers know their livelihood depends on a single element over which they have absolutely no control: the weather. (That's why my grandmother advised my mom not to marry a farmer.) Also, water shortages don't just affect farms; they affect entire cities. I'd have more sympathy if I didn't come from a farming background; watched diversified “family farms” evolve into huge, single-product conglomerates as children sell their parents' land; and know how much federal policy already supports agriculture.

I think we're going to continue doing so for a long time to come. The system's too entrenched. Some farmers who voluntarily changed practices have gone broke, providing a cautionary tale for neighbors who might have been persuaded to experiment. Water quality trading is just passing the buck. States that regulate farming are neutered by unrealistic cost-sharing requirements and other designed-to-fail components engineered by the agricultural lobby. (I'm told Wisconsin is an example; visit here).

Am I the only one who doesn't understand why this particular industry doesn't have to pitch in more significantly to improve water quality?

Stephanie Johnston
Editor in Chief