An “anti-farmer” ad campaign is little help in addressing pollution issues.

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HIDDEN inside a recent dust-upover spending by the Environmental Protection Agency is a bigger question for a Washington state product worth more than $1 billion a year.

The product is milk, and the question is: Can cow manure be kept out of the state’s waters?

There’s a difference of opinion on how well agriculture has addressed this question.

Advertising from What’s Upstream?, a coalition of environmental and tribal groups led by the Swinomish Indian Tribe, blames “unregulated agriculture” for putting waterways at risk. Some of the financial support for this campaign came from the EPA, which is prohibited from spending for advocacy without approval from Congress. At least 145 congressional members signed a letter to the EPA protesting the spending.

This squabble is counterproductive in addressing the bigger issue of how well agriculture is keeping pollution from waterways.

Both the state departments of Ecology and Agriculture are involved in safeguarding waterways. Representatives for both departments say agricultural runoff does contribute to non-point pollution. But they emphasize that it is part — not all — of the problem. Septic systems, urban runoff, wildlife and forests also put pollutants into lakes, streams and rivers.

Agriculture faces a challenging future: Farmers will need to grow more food on less land as the population grows and takes up more living space.”

The Department of Agriculture is responsible for enforcing the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act. The Legislature has more recently provided $575,000 for a review to “look for gaps” in the management program.

The department inspects each of Washington’s 400 or so dairy farms every two years. If problems are found in how manure is handled, help is offered in correcting them. If the problems continue, the department can assess civil penalties, ranging from $1,000 to $17,000.

“We find we have a higher success if we lead with the voluntary,” said Patrick Capper, special assistant to the director.

The review will assess what sort of “teeth” are needed in the dairy-management law, Capper said. The department’s goal is to find a fair balance of voluntary efforts and enforcement while keeping dairies viable economically.

Agriculture faces a challenging future: Farmers will need to grow more food on less land as the population grows and takes up more living space.

Clean water is no less important, and meeting the future successfully may mean that voluntary methods by agriculture may not be enough to protect the environment.

But it’s obvious that agriculture cannot be sacrificed for clean water. A better solution is needed. The world needs to eat.

A way must be found to save both the state’s agriculture and the salmon in its waters. Pointing fingers from billboards and the sides of buses as the What’s Upstream? campaign did makes it more difficult to address a complicated issue.

The Department of Agriculture’s cooperative approach — involving a variety of stakeholders in a review of enforcement and making changes where needed — should be the model.