Always drink upstream from the herd.
Earlier this week, Governor Bob McDonnell's administration released its plans for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. To a large extent the plan relies on voluntary actions to clean up the bay. It also provides for a system of buying and selling the right to pollute in certain watersheds - a plan that sounds much like cap and trade, a concept lambasted by many Republicans who care more about protecting business than protecting the environment.
Representative Bob Goodlatte (VA-06) joined Virginia farm organizations in calling for a more "flexible collaborative Bay cleanup effort." In other words the congressman and farmers want a largely voluntary plan with a few economic incentives but without deadlines or meaningful enforcement.
Voluntary always sounds good and sometimes results in meaningful positive steps, but in this case (and in many others) the problem is too big, the number and sources of the pollution to great, and the consequences of inaction too dire for this great natural resource to be restored simply by flexible and collaborative efforts. Action is needed and all (not just those with a conscience) need to be part of the solution.
How well does voluntary action work to end human behaviors that negatively impacts others? Suppose we had a voluntary program to end to drunk driving - think that would be effective? Even mandatory programs, where some find ways to get around the law, eventually find the problem rearing its nasty head after we thought it to be ancient history. For example, some parents figure that if all other kids get their childhood vaccinations, their darlings will be safe even without them. When enough think that way disease can make a quick comeback. Pertussis (whooping cough) cases are on the increase all across the country including cases recently in Orange County, Virginia.
Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay will require action from all involved - not just farmers, but also households with leaky septic tanks and overzealous lawn fertilization, municipalities with out-of-date sewage treatment plants, and factories and processors who use our waterways to flush away their waste products. With all due respect to Will Rogers, in today's world, there is no place that is upstream from from herd (or bad septic tank).
Having been involved in stream monitoring for the past several years I have come to the conclusion that responsible farmers who are doing the right thing by building livestock buffers, planting vegetation, and restoring steam banks should be saluted but the reality is those efforts are only minimally affecting water quality. Water laden with e-coli and other pollutants may improve but will not magically become clean because it passes through a mile or so of properly managed stream. Bad water in = bad water out. Plus, in our karst limestone region bad surface water can find it way into groundwater affecting private wells and municipal water sources. In short, a few farms (or homes or old sewage plants) can muck up the whole creek.
One impediment to farmers taking the steps to manage streams crossing their fields is cost of fencing and providing water to their livestock. Cost is even more prohibitive and there are economic disincentives if the land is leased. Many landowners wouldn't go through the hassle of getting a grant or putting up the bucks to pay for the fence - it isn't their cows in the stream and the costs probably couldn't be recouped in the rent. The farmer running the livestock on the land may want to keep cows out of streams to reduce hoof problems and keep them grazing, but he'll unlikely to pay for fencing and watering on land he doesn't own.
Nope Rep. Goodlatte, this is one of those cases where voluntary won't get the job done. Too many incentives to not volunteer. And just a few farmers, homeowners, or factories not cooperating for the common good will have a dramatic impact on all of us. I'm all in favor of grants, expert advice, and other assistance to farmers. Those incentives should be designed to move cleanup of our streams, our rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay along faster. There might even be a bit of economic stimulus in doing just that. But at the end of the day, if we are really serious about restoring the Bay, we'll need deadlines, mandates, enforcement, and a common set of rules for all who use (and will potentially abuse) our precious water resources.