Right to farm is also right to pollute
Many policymakers have a tin ear when it comes to the environment - they don't want to hear tree-huggers complain about pollution tied to industry and, therefore, jobs. But they would have to suffer from whatever the visual equivalent of a tin ear is, not to heed the lime-green warnings being issued by Lake Erie.
A vast, bright green bloom of toxic algae spread across the western end of the lake early this week, suspending public water service for about 500,000 people in and near Toledo, Ohio.
There is no mystery to the cause of the algae bloom, yet no consensus to attack it. The type of algae involved needs warm temperatures, phosphorous and nitrogen to grow. Warmth results from the lake's relatively shallow average depth of about 62 feet. Vast amounts of agricultural runoff along rivers that feed the lake provide the nutrients.
Algae blooms are a frequent occurrence, but winds often drive them toward the center of the lake, where they do not affect municipal water supply intakes.
Lake Erie is not unique. Algae blooms feast on excessive agricultural runoff around the world. The Gulf of Mexico experienced one last year that was as big as Connecticut. Another bloom killed scores of manatees in Florida last year, and still another sickened hundreds of marine mammals along California's central coast.
Yet public policy is slow to respond, and sometimes has been counterproductive. An initiative that just passed in Missouri, and which is gaining momentum in some other agricultural states, would prevent states from implementing the very measures that would diminish agricultural pollution. Called "right to farm," it also is a right to pollute.
States, including Pennsylvania, should work for policies under which agriculture and clean water are not mutually exclusive ideas. That, in turn, means standing up to ever-larger industrial farming operations.