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Groups Opposing State Question On Agriculture Form Unusual Alliance Over Water

Oct 6, 2016

State Question 777 — also known as ‘right-to-farm’ — would give agricultural producers in Oklahoma the constitutional right to raise livestock and grow crops without interference from future regulations by the state Legislature, without a compelling state interest.

Opposition to the state question comes from multiple sources, but a diverse coalition urging a ‘no’ vote is united by a shared concern: water.

 

Just below the Lake Tenkiller dam, Scott Hood dons waders and a fly rod and stands in the cold waters of the lower Illinois River near Gore. A bite comes quickly.

“I’ve actually stood in the same spot, with the same fly, and caught eight species of fish,” Hood says as he releases his catch back into the river.

Hood is with the Tulsa chapter of Trout Unlimited. Back on shore, he explains why the conversation group is urging Oklahomans to vote ‘no’ on State Question 777.

“Changing the state constitution is a step too far,” he says. “Farmers already have a terrific right to farm.”

Hood is worried about unintended consequences if voters approve SQ 777. He says the Legislature would be unable to enact new regulations to curtail water pollution from the runoff of livestock waste.

Past Problems, Strange Bedfellows

Pollution from runoff been a concern in northeastern Oklahoma, and the subject of alawsuit brought against the poultry industry by then Attorney General Drew Edmondson a decade ago that’s never been ruled on. Hood says the Illinois River is cleaner than it used to be, but runoff from chicken waste is still a problem.

“We’re standing right here with the smell of sulfur dioxide in the air. It’s definitely chicken litter from the Upper Illinois Watershed that’s coming through Tenkiller Lake,” he says. “You go up next to the dam and there are places up there you can actually hear the water coming out of the dam and you can smell sulfur like it’s Yellowstone Park.”

Hood is not a radical environmentalist. He’s not even sure if climate change is man-made. Hood never thought his fishing group would join forces with animal activists.

“I have to chuckle a little bit every time I think about who Trout Unlimited has joined forces with in this ‘vote no’ campaign,” he says. “We’re on the same team as PETA, and I’m sure they don’t particularly care for us trout fishermen, or anglers for that matter.”

Many of the state’s largest Native American nations also oppose SQ 777. They, too, are concerned about water.

 

Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources, Sarah Hill, in front of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah.
Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

“Any time you see Cherokees somewhere, you’re going to see corn, beans, and squash growing,” says Sarah Hill, secretary of natural resources for the Cherokee Nation.

Hill says ‘right-to-farm’ is dangerous for Oklahoma.

“It ties the hands of the legislature in circumstances where we might really need them to step in and take action,” she says. “And you don’t have to look very far in Oklahoma to see that there are a lot of issues here that agriculture impacts.”

'We're Not Going To Pollute The Water'

Like Scott Hood from Trout Unlimited, she’s referring to runoff from large chicken operations contaminating the Illinois River watershed. But Oklahoma farmer David Von Tungeln, who is urging people to vote ‘yes,’ thinks this worry about water quality is nonsense.

“I find particularly offensive the billboard in Oklahoma City showing the dirty water, saying if you vote for 777, this is what your water is going to look like,” Von Tungeln says. “As a matter of fact, we drink the water and I’m willing to do anything I can to make it cleaner. If we don’t have clean water, we don’t raise livestock, we don’t produce food, and I don’t like to be hungry.”

David Von Tungeln and his daughter, Amanda Rosholt, at a family home near Calumet, Okla. Von Tungeln wrote a $500 check to a political committee backing a 'yes' vote on State Question 777.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

John Collison with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau talked to StateImpact in March. He’s equally perplexed by why water is even part of the discussion. He says the Illinois River is getting cleaner, and he credits the region’s farmers for improving its quality.

“We have spent years and years cleaning up that watershed. Were there wrongs in the past? Sure. Are there laws on the book today that we have to follow? Absolutely. Does this state question do anything to take those laws off the book? Absolutely not,” Collison said. “We live here. We work here. Our kids grow up here. We’re not going to pollute the water. That’s just the most ridiculous thing of all times.”

If passed, the question would allow the legislature to further regulate the ag industry, but only if there’s a compelling state interest to do so.

In May, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill making it clear: water is a compelling state interest. But it’s unclear how much weight that law will have if 777 passes. Its language only grandfathers in laws in effect prior to 2015.

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