In theory, planning and implementation of water protection activities should be straightforward.
In reality, these steps are a highly complicated mix of science and politics. As the saying goes, “We all want clean water, as long as someone else pays!” Biases and experiences often skew our views.
Here are four points that I think would help.
1. Improve understanding of the problem. This is a big point! Many of the most heated disagreements arise over defining what the problem is, how large or small it is, when it became a problem and its cause. Water science is very complex, with lag times ranging from days to decades. Some pollution issues have multiple causes that are difficult to sort out and quantify. Diverse stakeholders with varied understanding of the problems can find it very difficult to reach consensus on what to do about them.
Long-term water monitoring at multiple scales is needed. Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time, so we are limited to recent data only. As time goes by, it should become easier to piece together trends and objectively identify areas where problems persist, and where things are improving and why.
2. Recognize good work already underway. In my view, much progress has been made in protecting water. Sewage treatment is not perfect. However, it is much better than it was 50 years ago. Ag practices have improved, especially in the areas of soil erosion and nutrient management — again, not to the point of perfection, yet better than in the past. Even the way homes, roads and shopping malls are built is better today.
That said, each stakeholder knows best what he or she has done, and it is easy to discount what others have done. My advice to those who want to see more done: Give credit for actions already underway, and encourage more. I believe this would make for a more productive process than the usual blame game.
Here is one specific example for farmers: If you want your positive message about managing nutrients to be better received, refrain from assuming that urban lawns are grossly overfertilized. Instead, share the concepts you use to apply nutrients correctly with urban folks. Maybe it will help them pick up a new best practice for lawn fertilizing and help them better understand your message.
3. Streamline the red tape associated with conservation programs. This largely applies to activities using conservation programs with cost-share. Farmers repeatedly tell me that red tape is the biggest reason they do not use programs for conservation practices. In fact, many farmers prefer to do conservation outside of programs, just to avoid the red tape. One problem arising from this approach is that credit is often given only for practices done thorough federal or state programs. There must be a better way to incentivize and recognize good practices.
4. Support research to quantify progress. I hear the same messages from farmers, city planners and wastewater plant managers — will the things you are asking me to do make a difference? It is relatively simple to quantify changes in wastewater treatment, as it is a confined system. The cost can be known, and changes in discharge measured.
Urban runoff is more complex. The amount of phosphorus removed from urban runoff by street sweeping is harder to evaluate. It’s similar for ag runoff. How much is nutrient runoff affected by application methods? How does tillage affect soil loss? What potential do cover crops have to reduce nitrogen runoff?
Farmers are looking for answers, and research is the only solution. In Minnesota, the Clean Water Fund is available to support research ranging from very basic plot work to demonstration projects, all of which can help answer these questions.
Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.