Agriculture doesn’t have to be sacrificed to achieve the goal of clean water. What’s needed is basic accountability from the largest source of stream pollution.

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WHY is it so difficult to have a rational conversation about the agriculture industry’s impact on our waterways?

A recent Seattle Times editorial disagreed with What’s Upstream?, our fact-based campaign to inform the public about how agricultural runoff is polluting Washington’s rivers and streams [“Agriculture cannot be sacrificed for clean water”, Opinion, May 10].

It is undeniable that farming to the very edge of our streams allows pesticides, fertilizers and land-applied manure to enter into our waterways and raises water temperatures to harmful levels for salmon. There is no debate that the dairy industry produces so much manure that it is over-applied to farmland and is stored in leaking manure lagoons, polluting the water and causing a public-health crisis of the first order.

The goal of our information campaign is to highlight the widespread impact that unregulated practices have on stream health, fish health and public health. What’s Upstream? also proposes the same reasonable, scientifically proven solution — riparian buffers — that has helped timber harvesters and land developers dramatically reduce their pollution impacts on our waterways.

Requiring polluters to control chemicals and other toxins they send into our streams — even if they are farmers — is not anti-farmer. It’s anti-pollution and pro-clean water, things we should all support.

Yes, “the world needs to eat,” but this does not justify giving the agriculture industry a free pass to contaminate our water. The world — including Washingtonians — needs clean water, too.

We can achieve the goal of clean water not by sacrificing agriculture but by requiring basic accountability.

Agriculture is the largest source of stream pollution in Washington and in the nation. This is not an inflammatory statement meant to demonize farmers. It is a mere statement of scientific fact, according to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The reason is not because farmers are bad people. Rather, it’s because our state has no system in place to regulate many agricultural practices. Unlike other industries, protecting our waterways from polluted runoff is voluntary for the agriculture industry, and farmers are merely encouraged to use “best management practices” that do not protect water quality.

Many individual farmers are trying to do the right thing, and they should be rewarded and thanked. But we have thousands of miles of rivers and streams that are too polluted to swim or fish in. Groundwater used for drinking water is being polluted. Shellfish beds downstream are closing. We would see significant improvements on all accounts if the agricultural industry as a whole was taking better care of our waterways.

The truth is, the existing voluntary approach has failed. A recent federal report shows that using this approach would take “longer than 1,000 years to restore all the water bodies that are now impaired by non-point source pollution.”

We agree with those who say that the agriculture industry is not responsible for 100 percent of non-point pollution. We hope, though, they can agree that the agriculture industry can still be accountable. Being the biggest contributor to the problem should be enough.

Our state has no system in place to regulate many agricultural practices.”

Readers are encouraged to visit our campaign website at for more information and to draw their own conclusions. They will find no hyperbole, inflammatory rhetoric, mischaracterization nor demonization. Instead, they will find well-referenced, science-based material detailing both the extent of the problem and the steps we can take to turn things around.

At a bare minimum, it is a conversation worth having. Let’s make it a rational one.