Farmers may win the war on the EPA with Congressional help. But I've always thought that was not the real threat to our insistence on farming the way we want to. The bigger issue is the willingness of those around us to tolerate any externalities like runoff, smells, dust, etc. If real harm is being done, I can't see how we can prevail in our judicial system regardless of politics.
We may be about to test that theory.
Des Moines, Iowa, is confronting the farms that surround it over pollution in two rivers that supply the city with drinking water. Des Moines Water Works says it will sue three neighboring counties for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. It's a novel attempt to control fertilizer runoff from farms, which has been largely unregulated.Too much nitrate can be a health risk, especially for infants under the age of 6 months, and it's difficult to remove from water. Filtering out nitrates cost the Des Moines water utility $900,000 in 2013.Bill Stowe, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, told Iowa Public Radio in an interview last week that "we are seeing the public water supply directly risked by high nitrate concentrations."
Stowe says the source of these nitrates is pretty clear. Farmers spread nitrogen fertilizer on their corn fields, it turns into nitrate and then it commonly runs into streams through networks of underground tile pipes that drain the soil. [More]
This is reminiscent of jailing Al Capone on income tax charges, or OJ on (civil) wrongful death - by civil rather than criminal prosecution. While the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, there seems to me to be consensus that the N especially, and probably the P, is ours.
While it seems hard to comprehend, farmers could eventually come to demand some regulatory relief that would protect them from civil actions like this. Too, the DSM lawsuit outcome will affect strip-tillers and hillside plowers the same, which won't go down easy either.
The Iowa suit will be closely watched by environmental groups and government entities sniffing around for a tobacco-like settlement jackpot. I think that is a real possibility. It could be funded by a tax of some kind on fertilizer or per acre or (insert your mechanism guess here). Whichever, cities downstream of us aren't going to let this slip by their treasuries.