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Agriculture and Water Quality: Discussions Continue

October 20, 2011Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Agriculture and Water Quality: Discussions Continue

Actually, I’m not sure that headline exactly gets it right.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Josephine Marcotty reports on this week’s Water Resources Conference, and says that a study presented there pinpoints tile drainage on agricultural land as a primary source of sediment runoff into Lake Pepin and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.  The story is here.

To me, the more interesting points are buried in the story.  A researcher for an ag industry group claims that the presented study hasn’t “proven their point,” while other scientists counter that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence points to current agricultural practices as the primary causes of impaired rivers in the region.

Peter Wilcock from Johns Hopkins, who attended the conference but did not present the particular study in question, notes that the debate has begun to resemble the contention around climate change, with scientists presenting competing viewpoints and beginning to be strongly associate with advocacy positions.  The more important research, Wilcock argues, is whether sedimentation can be slowed, or maybe even stopped.  The issue of what that reversal will cost, and who will bear those costs, needs increasing scrutiny as well.

I could not agree more.  There’s little doubt, at least to an amateur like me, that changed farming practices will likely incur costs, in lost revenues from lands taken out of production if nothing else.  And when we start examining the changes in agricultural production, and the changing agricultural economics that will occur also, then we run smack into very large issues of how US farm policy is set, what farmers produce, the costs of food, and a whole Pandora’s box of other issues.  At the University’s Institute on the Environment, Jon Foley has led a team to look at global issues of how to increase food production and environmental conservation simultaneously.

We need to know much more, at local, regional, and national scales, about precise costs of changing farm practices, and what the associated benefits to water quality would be.  Until we get a better understanding of the nuances, we’ll continue to have scientists competing that “my data is better than your data.”  We’ll continue to blur science and advocacy.

And sediment and nutrients will continue to choke the Mississippi.  We know enough to get started solving that problem, at least.  Let’s get started.

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