In late summer, I would swim and stream-walk a small section of the Raccoon River. While sedimented for decades now, the water was clear in the shallows. For a few years now, the water is pea-green from edge-to-edge. For decades and worse now, this water has strongly contributed to a vast hypoxia zone in the Gulf.

In the 1980s, I wrote about the wisdom of the river, focusing on the Des Moines River as a living, very open metaphor for the essential streaming dynamic of the universe that is within us as well in the streaming of our body metabolism and thought.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Special Interests, Not Public Interests, Control the Laws Affecting The Environment

WE ALL WANT clean water--urban dwellers, farmers, small towns and general landowners.

Why don’t we have clean water?

Clean water requires laws.  With regard to environmental issues, laws are regulations or controls on activity.  The game is to stymie regulations because regulations cost $$$.  Regulations tend to be politically linked with loss of freedom to do what special interests want, and they are enacted in the public interest.  When there is a regulation, the public might feel that they won, but it is typically a loss that is touted as a win for the public.  Special interests PR their “gift” to the public interest by supporting some regulations, but backroom deal well ahead of actual laws to avoid regulations.  It is never a priority such as “clean water first” or “landscape improvement first” that wins out.

Almost all laws today favor special interests rather than public interests.  And when it comes to environmental regulations, special interests generally aspire to oppose and defeat environmental regulations.  While public comments on proposed changes can be 90% clear that environmental concerns demand strengthening regulations, special interest groups essentially determine approved changes on a local, state and federal level. 

Legislation that suggests direction encourages non-compliance.  For example, EPA required all states bordering the Mississippi River to submit a Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  Iowa submitted an NRS  involving the development of 7,000 wetlands (now have 70?), 120,000 saturated buffers and bio-reactors (now have 60?),  and 12 to 17 million acres of cover crops (now have 500,000 acres?) with almost no focus on livestock pollution that has grown rapidly to perhaps 8,000 factory farms.  And the Iowa NRS, if completely actualized is speculated to attempt to meet a 45% reduction in pollution, not clean water.  If everyone complied and even if they were freely funded, it will take decades to meet these goals.  And there would be resistance to permanently taking land out of production.  Putting every square foot in to production is how we got into this problem.  As an aspect of much of mid-to northern Iowa being a prairie pothole ecosystem, Iowa once had myriad wetlands on farmland for free that tiling fields eliminated astonishingly within just a few years to put more land into crop production.

Federal and state laws that affect water quality in Iowa clearly favor special interests.  Federal EPA requirements are restricted by special interests.  The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is more regulated (by limitations on the restrictions that it can impose) than landowners and factory farms.  Opposition to actions by landowners and factory farms have little effect, and can even be subject to fines for whistle-blowing. 

Local governments are both regulated by state and federal laws as well as regulate on their own how far they can go restricting development that negatively affect water quality.  And they have real issue with old infrastructure that requires extensive repair and modern re-design to reduce, not prevent, water pollution.

Environment is secondary to nearly all projects’ economic costs.  The environmental outcome of human activity is clearly a loss of existing environmental quality at every turn.  And when there are environmental goals, there are more in the form of partial repair  and never really an effort that begins with the priority of improving existing quality first, with all other priorities secondary to that.

The simplest regulations do have a financial cost, or even a fine for violations.  WE do have regulations impose financial liabilities.  But such liabilities are often supplemented with much more significant tax money to repair the damage [e.g., animal confinement problems and manure spills] so that the violator gets a land improvement reward for damaging the land.

To get “clean water,” [clean water is not going to happen in your lifetime] federal, state and local legal decisions would need to require improvement of the landscape’s quality as their first priority.  And that is not really going to occur because of the power of special interests in these governmental bodies.

Well-meaning landowners face shifting tides of weather and price fluctuation and essentially, overproduce crops to try and break even, with very good years and lean years.  This is what guides water becoming potentially  clean or not.  And laws that are consistent year in and year out don’t fit this model.  And so they cannot steward the land in terms of even maintaining current quality, let alone improve the land quality.  And so there is next to no authentic land stewardship.  More chemicals are poured in to supplement both soil fertility loss and the increased density of planting and minimal crop rotation.

How laws really work: For example, the Bakkan pipeline approval illustrates the absence of improving the landscape as the first priority.  While damage to the landscape was considered, it would never be enough to preempt project approval.  If improving the quality of the landscape might have been the first priority that needed to be met, approval would be unlikely.  Why?  This would be viewed as stopping progress, both by lessening industrial infrastructure and employment opportunity.  These are the first priorities, and they seem obvious to most.  It is difficult to imagine how the pipeline could have been constructed in a way that would improve the landscape.  And show us attempts to offset the damage caused by the pipeline by improving some other landscape.  Nothing like that was required or even imagined.

Another example of the battle put forth by special interests against public interests (source, Des Moines Register, but I don’t have specific citation and date):
One textbook example:  In December 2000, the Clinton 
administration enacted a rule cutting the arsenic levels allowed in
water supplies by one-fifth.  President George W. Bush tried to 
reverse that regulation, but Clinton had already redefined the status
quo.  Bush was perceived as trying to increase the level of arsenic 
by five times.
After an outcry, the Bush administration relented to the Clinton 

Standards of “clean water” and activities that ‘improve the quality of the the landscape” are not really tree-hugger agendas.  They are neutral economic objectives for Iowa where we are rapidly decreasing water and soil fertility that cost us all--farmers and urban dwellers.  To mitigate the conflict stirred up primarily by the DMWW lawsuit, there is an agricultural industry response to, of course, tax all Iowans, and to suggest that business and farmers cooperate with no regulation on landowners and businesses cooperating out the the goodness of their heart because they, too, love the environment.  Proposals begin as weak responses that will not be fully implemented and clearly not consistently for the decades of intervention required.  Meanwhile, the quality of water an land fertility is dramatically degraded, and the intensity of chemical usage, dense planting, and factory farming anticipated to increase.   The only reason, damagers get away with land degradation is the blessed, rare quality of Iowa land in the world that has made it less obvious.  The land quality that forgives damage took ten thousand years to bank it in such volume, and we are rapidly depleting it.

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