fb - voice of agriculture
August 2001

New Opportunities to Improve Water Quality

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

At the turn of the 20th Century, America's water was a killer – and I am not talking about loss of life from floods and drownings. Waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery killed tens of thousands annually. Consider the times – raw sewage was dumped into open gutters, industrial waste was piped directly into the nation's streams and rivers, outhouses were common, and effective control of mosquitoes which carried yellow fever was decades away.

America's understanding of the role water plays in people's health and wellbeing greatly expanded throughout the previous century. Just as innovations occurred that purified drinking water and isolated and treated wastewater, other improvements developed that helped farmers and ranchers provide more and safer food products by using better resource management techniques.

Farm Bureau Raises the Bar for Water Quality

Our member-written policy insists that private ownership, individual freedom and market-oriented approaches combine to provide farmers the opportunity to serve through bountiful production and conserve through smart use of resources. To this aim, Farm Bureau is involved in a number of ways to help farmers improve the quality of their water source. For instance, more than 65,000 farm families in 26 states have used our cooperative well testing program to assure the quality of their water.

Another program, Watershed Heroes, introduces participants to the latest technology and scientific research. Sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, county and state Farm Bureaus create teams comprised of farmers, municipal water suppliers, crop advisers, soil and conservation district staff and university researchers. Over a 10-month period, from pre-plant to harvest, each team makes production decisions and measures their impact on water quality and on the ultimate corn or soybean yield from their plot. Participants leave this exercise with knowledge and enthusiasm that they spread in their local areas, which greatly expands the reach of our program. This year the Foundation is promoting water quality enhancement in our school systems through a comic book, with a teacher's guide and lesson plan in the works.

Our "Proud Water Partners" is another project that helps producers measure the condition of their watershed and identify procedures that can enhance that quality. A major part of this effort involves producers working with local and state authorities to accurately assess water quality and apply the necessary solutions to lessen their impact on their watershed. California, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas and Vermont Farm Bureaus are leaders in helping members protect their rights and the quality of their water.

Economic Incentives and Deterrents Affect Conservation Progress

Even as we steward our resources, there is another force that encourages Farm Bureau to promote voluntary, incentive-based environment enhancement programs. Farmers do not control the price we receive for our products, so we must control the cost of production. As unnecessary and expensive regulations are placed on our farms, often for no significant cause, the additional cost stresses our ability to run a profitable operation.

When we determine that federal regulations exceed the intent of lawmakers, Farm Bureau looks to the courts to address core issues that affect farmers everywhere. The Environmental Protection Agency under the previous administration sought to regulate smaller livestock feedlots and dairies and take water quality enforcement power from state and local agencies, even after EPA admitted in one of our court cases that it had no such legal authority. Your Farm Bureau successfully went to court to require EPA to take more time to get and be guided by scientific data before issuing one-size-fits-all water quality standards. And we have successfully brought suit in cases where people's water rights are shifted to weeds and bugs. We are encouraging a new approach with EPA in the new Bush administration; one that creates a dialogue that focuses on goals and accomplishments rather than process.

Farm Bureau looks for the next farm bill to recognize farmers' and ranchers' significant contributions to land and water conservation and provide new opportunities for us to further improve our stewardship activities. We envision a law that promotes and rewards good practices. We look to innovative conservation efforts that will be voluntary, provide sufficient economic incentive and clearly define and recognize the benefits that society derives from agriculture. Expanded public investment in agriculture will result in greatly enhanced resource conservation and guide farmers and ranchers back to the path to profitability.