Citizens League: Is it possible to put a score on water polluters?

In a recent post, I talked about how, in order to really fight water pollution, we need to go to the source. (Read: all of us.) The question Minnesota should be trying to answer is:

How do we set up environments where individuals, businesses, farms, and other organizations work together with government for clean water, because they meet their own needs in the process?

Tim Gieseke, a farmer, former conservation district staff, and the founder of Ag Resource Strategies, has proposed one answer.

Tim argues that, instead of focusing on reducing pollution, we should focus on clean water and put a value on good outcomes. “A clean water approach,” he says, “considers all the management of the land, not just the management associated with the government nonpoint source programs.”

Tim has developed an index that assesses a farm’s impact on a variety of factors and gives them an overall “water quality score.” This score opens up a way for the many people and entities working on a farm to communicate and helps them coordinate their efforts towards the goal of clean water.

We can set up conditions in which it’s in everybody’s interest to increase the score. For example:

  • A business purchasing farms’ products can require these suppliers to meet a certain minimum score in order to be recognized as a “sustainable” business.
  • Conservation districts, with cost-share and other funding available for farmers who volunteer to implement certain “best management practices,” can get a better idea of how to most effectively target these limited funds. Rather than distributing funding somewhat randomly to whomever volunteers, they can compile the assessments of multiple operations within their district to understand where funds will have the greatest impact to raise water quality scores, and hence to increase water quality.
  • The Pollution Control Agency, responsible for eliminating a list of water quality “impairments” (2,575 across the state and growing), can compile assessments on a watershed-by-watershed basis to better understand what needs to be done to reduce these pollutants.
  • These assessments arm farmers with a lot of information. Farmers make the decision to have their operation assessed, and they own the data generated as a result. Assessments can leave them with a greater understanding of the impact (both good and bad) of their practices and increased options to work with private and government partners.

These assessments and water quality scores are being piloted now through the Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Environmental Quality Assurance program, and they are proving to be useful tools for the people managing individual farm operations.

The next step is to demonstrate that Minnesota can get a lot more out of this tool by seeing it in a broader context, as a tool to build the new kind of governance that puts all us polluters in the center of coming up with solutions.

The Citizens League is working with Tim to further test and demonstrate this model, and to identify practical or policy changes that may be necessary to make it a success.

This post was written by Annie Levenson-Falk and originally published on the Citizens League Policy Blog.  Follow the Citizens League on Twitter: @citizensleague

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Tim Gieseke on 08/30/2010 - 08:02 pm.

    I think the editor miscued on the title – the score is not for water polluters, but a clean water score. There is a difference. In an economic system we pay for goods, we don’t subtract money from a supplier that does not provide us with the goods we want. But the title does show us how engrained this concept is within the media and public and how we perceive environmental issues. Our expectations are that we should demand benefits without due compensation, regardless if it is ineffective or far more costly than supporting those that provide the clean water.

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