Common merganzers enjoying a swim before the party begins.Like the rest of us, when the cost of some new endeavor outweigh the potential benefits, we balk at increasing our expenses. My mom had an aging pickup and wondered whether it was time to trade.

“When the monthly repair is more than the payment on a new vehicle,” I said, “it’s time for a new one.”

Or when more of your life is spent waiting to get the old one back from the shop, she might give some thought to swapping the old for the new.

I liked the truck. Put it in low gear and it was equally at home crawling down a rocky dry creek bed or pulling a house straight up a pine tree. Unfortunately, mother had no use for either trait, and I was still in the U.S. Navy, with little opportunity to drive a pickup around the roof of an aircraft carrier.  

One day Mom drove to the Volvo store and traded the big hauler for a four-door she didn’t need a ladder to climb in.

Value, it turns out, is an individual determination. A farmer asked to install new processes to reduce downstream contamination may look at how much extra wear he will put on his equipment, or how much cropland she will take out of production. In the end, reducing nitrates from piles of chicken manure may seem a great idea, but not if it will add six cents to the cost of a dozen eggs, as is estimated for a manure-to-energy plant in the county where I live.

The argument is that consumers will not pay the extra pennies.

That, of course, is not a decision made by people eating eggs for breakfast. It is made, generally, by the grocery stores that sell the eggs.

A few years back, I covered a story in which milk producers were fighting for more money for their milk. Milk processors would not pay because, they said the stores would not pay because, they said, milk drinkers would not pay. In the end, the farmers got an additional dollar per hundred pounds of milk. On the day the increase became effective, prices went up in local stores. The highest increase – nearly the whole dollar – was for one of the producers. A local television station said the increase was because the farmers got an increase.

One morning this week, someone in our conversation mentioned affordable housing may be perceived as more important than reducing field runoff.

Affordable housing. I love that term. Clearly, someone can afford the housing that is available for sale. Developers are in the business of creating homes for folks to whom they are affordable; they will build all the “affordable” homes we taxpayers are willing to subsidize.

I think we are close to discovering that principle will apply to many things we are not used to thinking about. Like clean water.

Sometimes, the choice is between values we can see and those we cannot. Spraying certain herbicides on our lawn gives us green grass but some of it runs off to degrade water a hundred miles downstream. Everybody lives downstream from someone, but polluting the stream is more of a problem when it’s someone upstream doing the polluting.

If we want to ensure clean water, we may need to change ordinances about how much green grass constitutes acceptably attractive lawns. We likely soon will be faced with new wastewater treatment facilities – for farms as well as human homes, And both wastewater treatment plants and redesigned agricultural processes will cost those of us who benefit from the expense. All of us.

Since you have read this far, I thank you. I have a request. Please share this column. Click the “Share” button on Facebook to share it on your timeline, or copy the URL and send it to to friends and acquaintances you think might appreciate it.