President Obama’s visit to the Twin Cities last week and his speech about jobs, the economy and the fecklessness of Washington politics was good theater played before an audience eager to hear that someone, somewhere has things figured out.
OK, maybe not everything. Obviously the Mideast is beyond fixing. Kids are pouring into Texas from Guatemala. And the Twins need a hitter who can punch the ball through the infield with a guy on second. None of this will be resolved anytime soon, we know that. But hey, if we play by the rules, work hard and hang in there, life will get better.
Or so we can hope.
Which in part was what the president was selling: hope. As he should. That’s his job.
In doing so, he suggested that personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and grittiness have made America great. And if we adhere to these ideals we can make the nation even better, while improving our personal lots.
Enter now the “but.’’
But these qualities can take people only so far if the deck is stacked against them. Women, for example, make less money then men for comparable work. And too many people are stuck in dead-end jobs that don’t pay living wages.
Both are unfortunate, everyone agrees, and both could be solved, or at least seriously addressed, the president said, save for the stranglehold that internecine politics have on the Capitol.
Still, hope floats.
Or does it?
As the president said: Not if the deck is stacked against you.
Conservation-minded Americans know the feeling.
Yes, paying off school loans, getting a job and buying a home are challenging problems. But these can be overcome, as the president suggested, with a little luck and a lot of pluck.
But chances are slim, no matter how educated people are or how hard they work, that they’ll ever enjoy the same quality of American natural resources their parents did, or their parents before them and those born earlier still.
The nation’s federal farm program and its poisonous effects on water, soil, wildlife — and us — is one big reason, a living laboratory of which is on display right here, right now, throughout flooded Minnesota.
Also foretelling gloom, if not doom, in Minnesota are the see-no-evil politics that ensure noncompliance of state laws requiring farmland rivers to be buffered to minimize stream bank sloughing and soil and ag-chemical runoff.
Unenforced here as well are state laws that prohibit farmers from planting corn and soybeans in public roadsides, which, sad to say, represent some of Minnesota’s last, best places for pheasants, songbirds and other critters to nest.
Why no enforcement?
Politics. The same kind the president says stifle him on immigration reform and other issues — yet the same kind regarding farm policy his administration has been party to for two terms, and before that, President George W. Bush’s administration, and on down the line.
Ever wonder, for example, why the nitrate- and silt-laden water that is rushed off corn and soybean fields by farmers’ subsurface tile systems into downstream lakes and rivers, and onto public and private lands, carries with it no liability?
Because agriculture tile lines are exempted as point sources of pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.
Politics made sure of that.
And you’re footing the bill.
As you read this, floods are depositing tons of farmland runoff into state wildlife management areas and federal wildlife refuges and waterfowl production areas, as well as the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, where, not incidentally, Lake Pepin — that wide spot in the Mississippi near Lake City — is being choked to death, literally.
So much soil is carried downstream by our evermore frequent “hundred year rainstorms’’ that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclaims a Minnesota wetland lost to ill-guided federal farm programs, technicians often must excavate 3 feet or more of silt before reaching soil organically rich enough to support a revitalized marsh or shallow lake.
Handmaiden to this nonsense is Congress, including Minnesota’s best and brightest of both parties. They’re the ones, after all, along with their colleagues, who decide who wins in this country and who loses — a point the president made well in his speech on Friday.
And make no mistake: The cabal that sets the nation’s federal farm policy wins, time and again.
And you lose — particularly if you have nitrates in your drinking water, as more and more Minnesotans do, thanks to excessive fertilizer loading by farmers. And especially if, like most Minnesotans, you live downstream of drained wetlands or tiled and ditched farmlands; property, by the bye, that in these flooded times is better described as farmed wetlands, not wet farmlands.
Like all good theater, the president’s road show last week played out with not a little irony. Highlighted were things the government hasn’t done for people. Yet the president’s visit occurred while the state was awash in the detritus of a law Congress actually came together long enough to enact, and the president signed: the Agricultural Act of 2014, e.g., the latest verse of the same old song, the federal farm bill.
To be fair, the historic rainfall amounts Minnesota has received in recent weeks would have made a mess of the state no matter how our croplands are farmed or water managed. And it is a fact that an increasing number of Minnesota farmers are tilling the soil with an eye toward clean water and indefinitely sustainable yields.
Yet it remains true that we, as a state, treat water as if its clean, abundant flow — surface and subsurface — is guaranteed forever.
Ask California. Or Texas.
Minnesota’s antiquated drainage laws encourage the dumping of water onto downstream neighbors and discourages water conservation, and that must change.
Minnesota’s stream-buffering law must be enforced.
And federal land and water conservation policies must be revised to provide farmers financial incentives to permanently treat their lands and our water like the gifts they are.
Will it happen?
We can hope.
But the deck is stacked against us.