Another Approach to Urban Areas Suing Agriculture Over Water Pollution?

A January 4, 2016, Bay Journal article examined the trend of urban areas or stakeholders suing rural areas over water pollution that is generated by agriculture and how urban and rural areas within Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay watershed are working on regional collaboration instead of litigation. The article provided a brief overview of urban vs. rural lawsuits in other parts of the nation before focusing on Maryland’s issues:

Nearly 15 years after the Tulsa [Oklahoma] Metropolitan Water Authority sued six poultry companies and one small Arkansas city for contaminating Tulsa’s water supply with phosphorus from manure, most of the [poultry] waste never touches the land in the watershed that feeds Tulsa’s lakes. Instead, it goes to Kansas, Missouri and other areas not near the watershed….

The Tulsa lawsuit was just one of several in which an urban entity has blamed agriculture for polluting its water supply. In 2013, environmental groups in Washington State sued Cow Palace, an 11,000-head industrial dairy, claiming that its manure lagoons were polluting the water supply of the Yakima Valley. In 2015, Des Moines Water Works sued three rural Iowa counties, alleging that the drainage tiles used by the counties’ agricultural drainage districts were a conduit for nitrates into the Raccoon River, and ultimately, Des Moines’ water supply. Other urban regions, such as Toledo, are trying to determine the best way to tackle agriculture pollution that has made its water unfit to drink.

After extensive analysis and the history of The article also provided detailed histories of the Tulsa and De Moines lawsuits. The article then noted that litigation also remains a possibility in Maryland due to agriculture’s large contribution to water pollution in on Chesapeake Bay Watershed:

Nitrate, phosphorus from fertilizers, and sediment pollute drinking water and surface water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, too. It’s an issue that officials along the Susquehanna and the Potomac rivers are watching closely. Both rivers supply many cities with drinking water and have agriculture-intensive areas. No entity has filed a lawsuit over nitrates as in Des Moines, but many water plant managers and regulators are monitoring the Iowa case. …

“It’s absolutely true — if you look at the math in the Chesapeake Bay, agriculture is a major pollutant source, and unless we improve our ability to reduce agricultural pollution, the burden will be placed on the urban sector,” said Chesapeake Bay Commission Executive Director Ann Swanson. “Make no mistake, the urban sector is not off the hook, but we need to do more than just improve the urban sector to get the job done.”

However, the article noted that some stakeholders are focusing on regional collaborative approaches as opposed to litigation, especially in light of the ill-considered litigation in the Hudson case:

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is starting to look at some larger landscape solutions to pollution problems. When Ernie Shea became the facilitator of the Delmarva Land and Litter Challenge in 2015, he was looking to control pollution from farms, but also to bring constituencies together so that policies were uniform across Delaware, Maryland and Virginia and communication was open. …

“My sense is that there’s a better way forward“ than lawsuits and acrimony, said Shea, who has worked with soil conservation districts and agriculture for close to three decades. “Instead of sitting back and waiting to be sued, you problem solve and work it inside out. That is what we’re trying to do on Delmarva.”

Shea referenced the Alan Hudson lawsuit, which became a bitter chapter in environmental-agriculture relations. The Waterkeeper Alliance sued Hudson and Perdue Farms over allegedly polluting a tributary of the Pocomoke River. Hudson and Perdue won, but the relationship with environmental groups was fractured, and many farmers are worried about more litigation. Instead, Shea said, farmers and engineers and hydrologists and environmental groups should be working together and helping each other.

The article provided several examples of where such cooperation is happening in other states:

Wisconsin has built 17 anaerobic digesters that turn dairy manure into energy. Ohio has leveraged its Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, once reserved for sewage-treatment facilities, to restore streams and wetlands. Indiana farmers are installing two-stage ditches that control pollution and are encouraging a system of no-till farming that reduces erosion and pesticide application.

“There’s innovation all across the country, and we should be examining it and bringing the best of those ideas home,” Swanson said. “The more innovation, and the more practices we can bring to agriculture, the more chances we have of saving the Chesapeake Bay.”