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Connecting the dots
Scientist sampling pollution in creek PhilAugustavo-iStock-GettyImagesPlus
Author says cities and towns are getting more combative about the water treatment requirements they face.

The pollution tiger lies waiting in the bushes ahead

Cities will demand, increasingly, that farms control runoff of nutrients into water supplies.

As I have mentioned in the past, my full-time job is for a company called Missouri Rural Water Association in source water protection, for which the main concern is source water used for public drinking water supplies.

Recently, a new provision was put in the farm bill that requires a minimum of 10% of all conservation funds be used for source water protection in watersheds that directly provide water for consumption. This initiative was led by a group called American Water Works Association (AWWA). This group is made up of over 50,000 members worldwide and was established in 1881. This is huge when it comes to protection of these areas and gives our urban neighbors a say in how the farm bill affects them.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was made law in 1974, in the era of burning rivers and smog-choked cities. During that time, 85% of pollution came from what was called “point pollution” or areas that could easily be identified with 15% from “non-point” sources, which comes from less-identifiable locations such as agricultural runoff. We did a good job cleaning up the obvious things that were polluting our waterways but now the percentages have switched, such that 85% of our pollution comes from non-point and 15% from point sources.

I work with both water and wastewater systems. There are numerous small communities around the country who are being put in financial strains to meet requirements of EPA regulations on waste water, with ammonia and phosphorus being two of the most tightly regulated. Nitrogen in the form of ammonia and phosphorus are the main culprits in harmful algal blooms such as in Florida or Lake Erie and the dead zone in the gulf.

It is interesting how large the amounts these small communities are being asked to regulate, and that they are minimal compared with the large amounts that come from conventionally farmed agricultural lands. I have examples of small communities of 400 or less paying thousands of dollars per every man woman and child in their community for a lesser amount of ammonia released by the entire town than is put out by one acre of conventionally raised corn.

Curiously, there are instances where permits written for wastewater plants are so stringent -- based on current pollution levels of streams from non-point sources -- that their discharge is actually needed to improve the quality of the entire stream.

I do not write this to place blame or try to belittle agricultural producers. Instead, I make note of it to help people understand that the non-point areas have a target on their head. Standards placed on one group are vastly different than what is placed on another, along with the burden of payment. In fact, this was the very premise of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit; taking the burden of payment off the non-polluter.

As I said, the emphasis of this blog is to not pick on farmers or conventional agriculture. It’s to point out what I believe lies in wait for us over the horizon. Communities aren’t going to continue to bear the burden of these regulations without pushback. I feel we will see more overreaching laws passed and lawsuits brought to the table. Look to Toledo, Ohio, and Lake Erie as examples.

Ultimately, my goal is to get the target off non-point pollution by following the simple soil health practices of no-till and cover crops. Our plan is to lead the charge in Missouri. Who’s with me?

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