University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Controversy Over “Troubled Waters” film

I guess this post marks my full entry into the blogosphere:  I’m writing about something I have no first hand knowledge about, without talking to the principals involved or reviewing the materials directly.  All I’ve done is read other news accounts.
For the newspaper reporter, and later scholar, in my professional background, this is difficult.  But here goes…
The University of Minnesota announced last week that it is delaying the release of a documentary film “Troubled Waters,” produced by the Bell Museum of Natural History.  The film, which addresses issues of agricultural pollution in the Mississippi River, was sponsored in part by the state’s Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and the McKnight Foundation, both of which have longstanding commitment to the Mississippi River.
Perhaps not surprisingly in this polarized era, reaction was deeply suspicious of the University’s motives in delaying the film.  The Minneapolis StarTribune’s front page story on September 17 could not have made University officials happy.  Over the weekend, reporters for the student-run Minnesota Daily dug for more and published a more detailed account today.
As I said, I haven’t seen the film and I haven’t talked to any of the people involved.  But the issue highlights for me some of the challenges we face in thinking clearly about the relations between agriculture and water quality, specifically in the Mississippi River.  For instance:
  • We know that conventional agriculture contributes substantially to pollution of the Mississippi River and to the hypoxic “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  Scientific studies are unanimous that sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus, largely if not completely derived from agricultural fields throughout the middle section of the country, are the primary pollutants on the river.
  • We also know, through long experience in the policy debates, that changing farming practices to reduce the runoff of sediment and farm chemicals has been met with resistance from various groups associated with farming, whether growers associations, other industry groups, or industries strongly associated with agriculture, such as the barge transportation industry.  These debates have gone on, literally, for decades.  In some cases, there is work toward solutions that achieve a workable balance of agricultural practice and water quality, and in some instances the sides are continuing to war with each other.
  • The Mississippi River system has many nationally significant values beyond its role as a transportation corridor.  It supplies drinking water for tens of millions of people.  Ecological systems along the river and its main tributaries provide habitat for a huge percentage of the continent’s migratory birds, which in turn support thousands of hunters, bird watchers, anglers, and other recreational users, who, collectively, constitute a multi-billion dollar industry.  In fact, beginning with the 1986 Water Resource Development Act, it has been national policy that the Mississippi River is both a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant transportation system.
So where does this leave us?  Maybe I shouldn’t say this (that caveat that bloggers probably ought to use more often) but I don’t think we’ve thought hard enough about this problem yet.  The issues are too easily polarized as slogans:  “Big Ag Has to Change” or “Our Farmers Have to Feed the World.”  I suspect this difficulty is partly at work in the “Troubled Waters” controversy, as some people see the film as “unbalanced” and others think of it as just fine.  Is debate over the connection between agriculture and the Mississippi becoming like the climate change debate, with a strong consensus among most experts being cast into doubt by economic interests who are threatened by the fundamental changes that face us?  I don’t think it much of an exaggeration to say that achieving a “fishable and swimmable” Mississippi, to use the language of the federal Clean Water Act, will require far-reaching changes in our lives.  How do we go about instituting the policies and practices to achieve those changes?
There are many people and organizations working on the problem of how to achieve the necessary changes in agricultural practice that will feed people and not damage the Mississippi River.  This work involves the detail of agricultural production:  how much chemical to apply, and when, to minimize polluted runoff.  But it also involves big questions of agricultural and food policy:  if a cleaner Mississippi imposes more costs on production, where will those costs be borne?  How much is the public willing to pay, through higher prices at the grocery store, for a cleaner Mississippi?  Specialists in these areas will, I am sure, tell me that even these questions are too broadly posed, that the issues are yet more complex.
But that complexity, finally, draws me back to the “Troubled Waters” film.  The University of Minnesota has a responsibility to “get it right,” to be “trusted information brokers” as one recent conference speaker I heard put it.  To me, that means we have to continue to try to negotiate the difficult ground that connects research to policy and practice, that takes the best available knowledge and puts it into a format that reaches and informs nonspecialists without becoming polarizing or alarmist.

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One Comment

  1. Todd R.September 20, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Great re-cap of the current controversy, Pat. I’m really curious to see where this issue goes in the days ahead.

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