by Dr. Timothy Aberson
I’m a conservationist and a conservative. The thumbnail sketch of my background is simple. I grew up an Iowa farm boy. To this day, I remain one at heart. So I must confess that President Trump’s decision to roll back his predecessor’s order placing all “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under control of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers left me in a state of considerable mixed emotions. Emotions that are entirely my own. They do not represent the position of this Foundation.
The idea of removing a federal agency, much less two, from control of local rivers, tributaries and wetlands cheered my conservative side as well as my neighbors who farm. My conservationist side, however, was and is troubled. Perhaps not as deeply as my more liberal colleagues in the environmental movement but troubled nonetheless. Who should have oversight and authority to see that we, as a nation, do the right thing for our domestic waterways?
I’ve not been able to shake the idea that this in someway is a reprise of the key issue state or local rights in relation to that of the Federal Government that led to the Civil War? In my opinion, Federal versus state and local control over environmental affairs near home was, is and will remain a hot button issue for the foreseeable future.
No one disputes the importance of clean, pollution free water. Not environmentalists, federal and state elected officials and bureaucrats, farmers, developers, or voters of liberal or conservative bias. No one denies shortsighted farming techniques contribute to the demise of rivers and tributaries as well as offshore dead zones due to topsoil, fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide run off. On the other hand, federal engineering attempts to “improve” upon Nature can and have resulted in unintended disasters. I point to the “straightening” of the lower part of the once twisting and turning Mississippi River. Safe havens for aquatic life such as shrimp to mature and grow in wetland sanctuaries are forever lost.
Closer to my home, Iowa’s Floyd River is another prime example of a problem with no simple solution. A generation ago, its water ran see-through clear from surface to the bottom. Walleye and other coveted game fish flourished. Life in the river was abundant. Today, the Floyd is as muddy as the Mississippi. What fish remain, residents are loath to eat. Who’s at fault? Who can provide a remedy? Should we trust our neighbors or the EPA? What use restrictions must we be forced to live with if we choose the latter.
Farmers who insist on taking out fencerows and trees near water’s edge and who plow every inch of ground contribute mightily to the problem. Others who understand the importance of joining farming and conservation measures such as natural bio-filters, no-till farming, the use of cover crops, buffer strips and more insist they are the proper source for the remedy.
The conservative view traditionally is grounded in the principles that individuals and governments at any level must avoid spending more than income and that no citizen or community should ever yield individual responsibility to government. There is truth in the fear that individuals and local governments have neither the resources nor the wherewithal to do the right thing to avoid degrading Nature’s lands or waters. There is also truth in the belief that a “one-size-fits-all” bureaucratic solution, particularly one influenced by backroom influence peddling, is no solution at all.
From a conservative conservationist’s point of view the President’s intervention in the question of who determines how best to care for WOTUS presents an opportunity for cooperative action between federal and local stakeholders. I truly believe to achieve real and lasting improvement of our waters we must engage in an effort of shared responsibility or as we say in the investment industry, everyone must have skin in the game to make it work.