Pesticides in Our Waters

Ben Long from High Country News alerts us to possible shenanigans underway in Congress. It appears a coalition of agriculture and chemical company interests are lobbying Congress to allow farmers and others to apply pesticides near waterways without first obtaining EPA-Clean Water Act permits. The lobbying effort is part of the grossly over-funded reauthorization of the Farm Bill, the law that funds farm subsidy supports and food stamp programs.

Digging a little deeper, which unfortunately one always has to do with any HCN article, it appears that there was a lawsuit regarding the EPAs 30-year long practice of not requiring Clean Water Act (CWA) permits for application of pesticides near waterways. The EPA had long held that a CWA permit was not needed because pesticides and their use are already regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. Someone sued the EPA, and a U.S. Court of Appeals decided with the plaintiffs, and against the EPA (par for the course with the EPA). Hence, the effort in the Farm Bill to reestablish the old status quo.

I don’t know what to make of the policy fight. Maybe the laws are duplicative, as EPA argues. Maybe not. In truth, I don’t care. Like a lot of our political fights, this one ignores the central point: why are we dumping pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers into our nation’s waterways? Why is there even a permit process for this activity? The fact that there is a permit process means that we don’t just tolerate this, but we approve of the degrading of our nation’s waterways with pesticides and other pollutants.

Look, nonpoint source pollution is the nation’s largest source of water quality problems. It is the reason why 40 percent (!) of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not clean enough for human uses like swimming and fishing. According to the EPA, agriculture is the leading contributor to water quality impairments, degrading 60 percent of the impaired river miles and half of the impaired lake acreage surveyed (municipalities are killing the estuaries). We’ve made tremendous strides cleaning up point source pollutants from our municipal wastewater treatment plants and our industrial facilities, but we have no controls in place over the majority of pollutants that enter our waterbodies from stormwater runoff, which carries with it all the fertilizers dumped on lawns to keep them green, all the motor oil and gasoline spilled onto parking lots and city streets, all the loose soils and other materials from construction sites, and all the chemicals dumped onto our agricultural lands.

No one’s arguing that pesticides aren’t important. They are vitally important for a number of reasons dealing with food security and agricultural productivity. Note: pesticides are not justifiable toward the maintenance of that nice, lush carpet of green grass our fertilizer companies are selling to every homeowner. But we have allowed the use and application of agricultural chemicals too near waterways for too long, and they are polluting a significant public Commons, the nation’s waters. What we need is some new thinking, some new understanding that the waters belong to all of us, not just the agricultural interests; we need a new set of laws to protect our nation’s waters, not a new permitting process to allow the same old practices to continue.


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