Sometimes I really wonder why I read news articles, especially when they tend to frustrate me. There was an article in the Des Moines Register yesterday entitled "EPA Chief has No Plans to Regulate Farm Runoff". You can imagine why that would have caught my attention. You'd like to think that the Environmental Protection Agency was doing just that - protecting the environment. I have spent a fair amount of time working to prevent runoff in my career and numerous classroom hours trying to convey to students why this issue is so important in so many ways. But... I have also spent a large part of my career working in policy and trying to support a connection between regulation and science. It doesn't always work; science and policy (and regulation) seem to be diametrically opposed more often than not. Why? In general (and in my experience) it comes down to two things: money and a lack of understanding of the science.
Money is perhaps self-explanatory, but what is difficult on the part of the agencies like EPA is that they are short on budget, which translates to short on staff. More difficult is the fact that government at any level has to make choices about where to spend limited funds. The environment doesn't always, and in fact somewhat rarely, will end up in the priority list. Elected officials don't tend to have science backgrounds and are pushed/pulled in many directions. Unless there is a disaster that is catching everyone's attention (e.g., the BP oil spill last year) the environment doesn't get a lot of attention from the public, but there are many lobbyists out there for industry (I use this term generally) who don't want regulations because it costs industry money to be in compliance. Also note that if those industries do spend the money on compliance it is generally passed on to the consumer. At the federal level there have been adminstrations that favor environmental regulation and those that have not. There are many that would like to see our strong regulations, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, weakened. From a policy standpoint there are many models as to how to deal with and enforce regulations; the best or most appropriate model is always debatable. Agencies like EPA take their direction from Congress. Congress is the body that passes the laws and then the agencies get to figure out how to implement them. Many times what is passed in Congress is complex, contradictory and confusing as to what/how/why something should be done. Remember Congress isn't made up of scientists and they are making decisions based on information they are receiving from a number of sources. Therefore, agencies like EPA have to interpret what the intent of Congress is and if they get questioned, then the Judicial Branch of the federal government gets involved to interpret the law for everyone. Of course there is always the Executive Branch (the President) who can issue Executive Orders. In short, environmental policy is interesting, but complex. I could go on - but perhaps another time.
Lets move on to the issue of not understanding science. When I teach environmental science I tell students the first day that "Everything is connected to everything else". I get a lot of blank stares. The last thing I say at the end of the course is "Everything is connected to everything else." No blank stares; a lot of nods - because by the end of the course they understand what that statement means and can explain it on their own using many examples. As a society we really do not understand that what we do has far reaching effects on our ecosystems, not just on the short term, but also the long term. We also don't do a good job of understanding the extent of an impact or the fact that some of the impacts leave no option for recovery.
The article I referred to in the beginning of this blog is about Iowa farmers and agricultural runoff. Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northley is quoted as saying "Water quality efforts are not inexpensive" with respect to installing practices to prevent runoff. True. But consider this. It takes a whole lot more money to fix a problem than it does to prevent it in the first place. Iowa's runoff goes to the Mississippi River and adds to the issue of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as numerous other issues along the way. We can't even put a clear economic impact dollar amount on the impacts because we have no good or agreed upon way to value ecosystem services - nor do we necessarily understand what the loss of those services might mean.
Like many issues in environmental science, there is no "silver bullet" that provides all the solutions. There will always be debate about what is right for the land owners versus what is needed for the environment. This will get even more difficult as population continues to increase and resources become more scarce. It is utopia to think that voluntary measures will be sufficient to address environmental issues, but regulation hasn't always been successful either. Consensus on how to approach environmental issues/impacts is lacking.
Everything we do affects the world around us; we just don't fully understand the magnitude and consequeces. Is it a mistake to rule out regulating farm runoff in the Mississippi Basin? I think so, but time will tell the whole story. In the meantime one could look at other watersheds and known issues for some clues. The examples aren't lacking; look around the U.S. and globally and you will find many examples involving not only water quality, but water quantity. While I am likely preaching to the choir, so to speak, these issues should be of concern. Water (quality or quantity) is nothing to take for granted.
To read the article in full from the Des Moines Register go here: http://bit.ly/eCu8hH