What a Polluted Stream Means for Liberty

I recently did a presentation that highlighted one of the most ticklish spots for conservatives and libertarians. I’ll set the stage and then address the tension.

A couple of people in a nearby rural county became concerned about water quality in a stream close to where they lived. They took a couple of water samples, sent them to a lab and found extremely high levels of manure in the water.

The coliforms, E. coli and other contaminants were some 50 times the recommended acceptable levels.

Nobody wants to live next to a stream full of poop. They began discussing the situation with neighbors and friends, and, before long, a core group formed with enough manpower to sample water all over the county.

They learned that this initial stream was not an isolated case… The problem was ubiquitous. Further sleuthing led them to a culprit: cows in streams.

A secondary villain was concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), primarily poultry houses that generate mountains of manure. Of course, farmers spread that manure on the land, and some of it finds its way into the streams and rivers.

As I’ve shared this story, I’ve purposely not used prejudicial terms that we conservatives tend to use. I could have said a group of environmentalists. I could have said militant group instead of core group.

But that would have tainted the story.


To help move us to a fair appraisal of what I consider ticklish, I’m forgoing those terms and staying with a completely good-faith spirit. Partly because I think these folks are absolutely operating in good faith.

As this group gathered more data and more momentum, they sought legislative relief from the county’s board of supervisors.

In fact, the group would like an ordinance that essentially outlaws any animal in a stream and outlaws CAFOs.

Unsure of what this would do to farmers – they like farmers – they looked for a farm that adhered to their dreams and found me.

Setting the Example

Our farm, Polyface Farm, is known worldwide for ecological livestock farming, and, yes, we’ve fenced out our riparian areas for decades, without any government assistance.

Both federal and state money is available to help farmers fence out streams and develop alternative sources of water. However, in my experience these programs are extremely costly and overbuilt. In fact, they preclude ponds and other models for hydration that are superior to digging wells.

Furthermore, these programs don’t do anything about the surrounding landscape management, which of course is the single biggest variable in water quality.

The group sent some representatives out to our farm for a tour and left completely sold on the strength of our water protection and enhancement techniques. They put together three public informational meetings about the water issues in the county.

Guess who they asked to present at the third and final meeting?

A Crucial Difference

So here’s the ticklish situation. Now I’ll use the terminology many of us enjoy. This group of radical environmentalists wanted me to come as the cleanup batter. They wanted me to help whip up the public to demand heavy-handed regulations on farmers to exclude their cattle from the county’s streams.

To be sure, I very much agree that cattle should not be in rivers. I’m well aware that herds of bison, sized more than a million, were not excluded from these streams long ago. But the difference is that they passed through as they migrated. The bison did not stay for days in the same spot.

With today’s land ownership and domestic livestock, a farmer’s cows can lounge in the same spot every day of the year – hence the problem. And to say it’s not a problem is to reject stewardship.

Of course we should care about poopy rivers. So yes, I’m delighted to help farmers see the light.

At the same time, I was concerned about two things.

The Conundrum

The first solution was overkill. The problem with an ordinance like this is that it tends to overreach.

Of course I’m in favor of excluding cows. That’s what we’ve done on our farm. But we do allow some limited access for water points and as a safety measure in case our water system malfunctions.

But our cows do not have access to the same spot for more than a day or two. This means we have dense vegetation growing along the bank, unlike the farms that allow continuous access.

But how do you parse that in an ordinance? How many cows to how many linear feet for how many days a year? Exceptions for blizzards? Malfunctioning water delivery systems? Hard-to-get-to places?

The nuances are varied and hard to codify.

The second problem is the notion that suddenly a new agency, a stream Gestapo, would now be patrolling the hinterlands, making summary judgments against farmers. This is a nightmare for anyone who believes in limited government and freedom.

So here I was, straddling this tension between freedom and protecting the commons. It’s a conundrum… and one for which I do not have an answer.

Do the Right Thing

I’d like to think that if the government were not involved in much of anything, those of us truly caring for the earth would ascend in the marketplace. But that puts faith in humankind to do the right thing, and that is a risky bet.

The fact is that plundering and ecological rape do exist, and they’ve existed for a long time in both Western and Eastern cultures.

Environmental exploitation and abuse did not start with Western society or Columbus or the conquistadors. Greed, shortsightedness and selfishness are ubiquitous in the human condition. Trashing the commons is normal.

But protecting the commons is foundational to enabling people to do stuff with stuff.

Is the only way to protect it through regulatory ordinances?

In my experience, every time we try that, it ends up causing more harm than good. If my neighbor destroys my use of the river, that certainly limits my freedom. And if we destroy the commons, we destroy the whole basis of civilization.

My answer is to get as many people to do the right thing on their farms (my message to this public meeting) and buy the right things for their plate.

I don’t know any other way, and I’m open to alternatives.

Note: Do you have an answer to Joel’s conundrum? Send us your thoughts and solutions here.