Letter from Langdon: The Water-Quality Double Standard

The federal government worries about the quality of trickles of water on the farm while allowing an urban torrent to remain untreated. A better understanding of farming is a first step for tapping rural America’s vested interest in maintaining clean water.

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One thing most Americans take for granted is our clean reliable water supply. But here, where I grew up on the farm outside of Langdon, Missouri, we never did. That’s because each family on every farm was solely responsible for a well and all the apparatus it took to supply the farm house and livestock pens with a steady, uninterrupted supply of water.

I remember horror stories from the 1950s and ’60s of neighbors who unwittingly fouled their own wells. One left a crop sprayer filling near his well when he broke for lunch. While he was gone the electric pump quit, allowing hundreds of gallons of pesticide laced water from the sprayer to siphon back into the well. Another accidentally broke the supply line leading from a nearby fuel oil tank to the farm house furnace. Heating oil eventually found its way into the well.

In both cases the wells were rendered almost useless. And there were other cases of wells situated down hill from livestock pens or farm fields where flooding rains washed contaminants down the hole.

That’s why anyone would think that some of the most devout clean water conservationists on the planet would be farmers. But anyone who thinks that would be wrong, because in reality farmers have been among the first and loudest detractors of just about any government clean water rule known to man.

There are two basic sources of agriculture-based water contamination in the Corn Belt. One comes from nitrates and phosphorous from manure and other fertilizers. The other source is contamination from popular herbicides–like alachlor, atrazine, and more recently glyphosate.

To be sure, farmers have opposed the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules based on interagency squabbling among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency over who regulates what and how they do it. That makes farmers feel besieged when the Corps, for instance, draws lines across farm fields connecting dots of water puddles and ponds all the way to the Gulf of Mexico or Great Lakes. In reality, most aren’t actively flowing streams, but seasonal runoff no different than when rain showers send pollutant-bearing flows down city streets into gutters and then rivers.

Farm fields absorb and hold more pollutants out of our water than concrete or asphalt, but cities and high-population areas are never studied for their impact on runoff and pollution mostly because there isn’t an economical alternative to what we have now.

Carol French of the Pennsylvania Landowner Group for the Awareness and Solutions holds a jar of water from the well that supplies her home in Bradford County that has allegedly been contaminated by nearby fracking.
Carol French of the Pennsylvania Landowner Group for the Awareness and Solutions holds a jar of water from the well that supplies her home in Bradford County that has allegedly been contaminated by nearby fracking.

A good example of that is the Flint River in Michigan. The river carries highly corrosive chemicals that leached into it from decades of manufacturing along its banks. No one has disputed the polluted nature of the river just as no one has taken on the issue — until local government decided to draw Flint’s water supply from that polluted source. Now, thanks to lead leached from an archaic water system’s pipes by acidic Flint River water, everyone in America has heard how bad it is.

This is way more damaging than prairie potholes and seasonal flows out of farm fields, which would be regulated by WOTUS. But government’s sole solution for Flint has been for the Obama administration to issue water filters to consumers there.

Keep in mind that for developmentally challenged government agencies like those mentioned earlier, the word money is spelled j-u-r-i-s-d-i-c-t-i-o-n. The more real estate they control, the bigger their budget, along with near invincible authority on whatever part of America they stake out.

Of course, nobody wants authority for Flint, Michigan, right now.

Still, farmers live close to both land and water. It’s in our best interests to protect those things from government encroachment and from some of the very corporations who try to lead us and put money into fund war chests against the EPA rules. Those big companies aren’t interested in defending the Constitution or farmers.

They’re defending their own profits derived directly from agriculture.

Some of my best friends are environmentalists. I sympathize entirely with their position. After all, it’s my earth too. But the problem for me is that many environmentalists have little true understanding of how farms work or what we do, or the fact that chemical pesticides have been around way longer than most suspect. Even though I was very young at the time, I’m old enough to remember the first time Dad applied atrazine to our land in the early ’60s. It was miraculous. One neighbor told me he owed my dad everything, including a debt of gratitude, for convincing him that atrazine would kill weeds and grasses in his corn without harming the crop.

The problem with atrazine then wasn’t environmental damage, but that weeds soon became immune to atrazine so that after 10 years it had become largely ineffective even at application rates four times higher than the original. Regulators have been trying for years to retire atrazine, but manufacturers aided by farmers have resisted so that it’s still around. My experience hasn’t been that I need it, but even though I’d prefer not to use it, it’s hard not to because many corporate herbicide formulations incorporate atrazine into their mix, whether I want it or not.

Some research has shown that sunlight and microbes break atrazine down to nothing, even that corn plants metabolize it. Other research says it’s in our water and soils, stored in layers of clay where it may never completely disappear. In a familiar echo of the past, we were told that glyphosate (used in products like Round Up) simply dissipates. But it doesn’t really; glyphosate testing has revealed it in our water and food.

Another word for dissipate is disperse. It turns out most pesticides and fertilizers don’t just vaporize but are dispersed across a wider area. On that score at least, corporations are telling the truth.

If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Flint.


Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter From Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.


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