Fooling Ourselves With Polls


The situation in Flint, Michigan has rightly has put a spotlight on the deplorable state of drinking water in America. Water pollution in the U.S. from agriculture is also a big problem getting bigger. From Toledo to Des Moines, municipal water systems are being overwhelmed trying to filter out farm pollutants. The residents of Adrian, Minnesota were forced to switch to bottled water when their water became too dangerous to drink due to chemical fertilizer contamination.

Iowa in particular has become ground zero for farm related water pollution. The Des Moines Water Works is engaged in a first of its kind lawsuit to force upstream drainage districts to stop farm chemicals from contaminating ground water. Industrial agriculture has taken a severe toll on Iowa’s environment from habitat loss, to soil erosion to chronic water pollution.

The solutions to all this we’re told by Iowa’s agriculture and political leaders is for farmers to engage in acts of voluntary conservation. US taxpayers have poured over $4 billion into such efforts in Iowa since 1995. A new report from the Environmental Working Group (my old employer) demonstrably shows how voluntary conservation has failed in Iowa. The report, Fooling Ourselves, uses aerial imaging to confirm how fleeting some conservation measure are when married to the financial needs of farmers.

EWG used aerial imagery to track what happened between 2011 and 2014 with two simple but important practices – stream buffers and grassed waterways – in eight watersheds prioritized in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. In that period, some landowners in those watersheds started following practices to control runoff, but others stopped. In the end there was no lasting gain in protection and no or miniscule progress in reducing runoff.

Talk to farm groups in places like Minnesota and states surrounding Lake Erie and you’ll hear the same pitch for voluntary conservation. National groups representing the core of industrial agriculture like the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation are selling that message, too. Worse, when the farm bill (the funding vehicle for conservation programs) comes around every five years or so these same groups refuse to lobby for conservation funding, opting instead to secure lucrative farm subsidies that often work at cross purposes with conservation.

The EPA’s Waters of the US rule is not a cure all for ag pollution, but the farm bureau is successfully wailing away at it. What really has the Grand Old Farm Lobby concerned is what’s happening in the Chesapeake Bay. There the EPA has established a “pollution diet” under the Clean Water Act in an effort to reverse course on the seriously imperiled, iconic estuary. The diet consists of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that can run from farm fields into the watershed without causing more damage.

The corn growers and the farm bureau have both challenged TMDLs in court. That’s rich considering everyone with an interest in Iowa industrial agriculture says going to court is no way to solve water quality problems.

What they really fear about TMDLs and the pollution diet is that it is one day applied the Mississippi River Basin – the main waterway for the Corn Belt. To that end, this latest poll commissioned by the farm bureau tries and fails to show “voters” oppose TMDLs.

Farm bureau poll: Half of voters (48%) trust state/local governments more than federal government on environmental regulations.

ROA: First, 48% is not half. It’s 48%. Second, what happens when you instead ask residents whom they rely on when local government fails them, like in Flint, Des Moines, Toledo, and the Gulf of Mexico?

FB poll: More than one in three voters (36%) say there is too much government regulation in the areas of health, safety, and the environment.

ROA: Using farm bureau math that means 1 in 3 think there’s not enough regulation.

FB poll: More than half (54%) rate the quality of rivers and streams in their local area as “excellent / good.”

ROA: Using FB math, half don’t think their lake or stream is excellent or good. That’s not great.

FB poll: Six in 10 voters (62%) are less likely to support the TMDL if they know it will put farmers out of business.

ROA: This one is a doozy. The FB did some serious push polling here, stating to respondents highly stilted statements like “The rule is just the first step in the EPA’s plan to regulate all watersheds covering all land in the United States” and “The rule is expected to cost more than $28 billion over the next decade in Virginia and Maryland alone.”

What if instead you asked voters would they rather have to buy bottled water forever or support a TMDL? What about “would you support a TMDL if it didn’t mean you had to boil your water every day?” The truth is farmers who figure out how to grow food while protecting water will prosper in the future, and polluters won’t.

FB poll: Half of voters (53%) are only willing to pay an extra $30 or less a year to achieve current water quality goals for the Chesapeake Bay. 

ROA: Better question, how many voters would want their tax dollars — now funneled to the largest mega farms in the country in the form of farm subsidies — redirected to improve water quality?


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