Today, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Mississippi River Collaborative are releasing “Cultivating Clean Water,” a new report that examines the effectiveness of state-based regulatory programs to control agricultural water pollution and recommends policies that will result in cleaner water.
This report provides a snapshot of what is currently a fragmented and poorly-implemented system of state-based regulation of agricultural pollution. But the story is not one of failure, rather it is a story of unrealized potential.
Manure, fertilizer and other agricultural pollutants are a significant source of pollution affecting a huge number of lakes and streams across the country, endangering drinking water supplies, threatening wildlife and contributing to the massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1987 amendments to the federal Clean Water Act directed states to develop programs to control “non-point” sources of pollution such as agricultural runoff.
“However current approaches are not delivering measurable improvements in water quality,” said Chris Jones of the Des Moines Water Works. “We continue to see elevated nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers that provide our source water, and some problems appear to be getting worse. These include the frequency and duration of harmful algae and cyanobacteria blooms, and ammonia loads delivered during the spring runoff.”
Voluntary agricultural conservation programs can play an important role in reducing water pollution if they are better targeted and fully funded. “It is clear that voluntary programs alone will not get the job done and funding for voluntary programs continues to fall under the budget knife. We hope this report starts a serious conversation about regulatory approaches that work for agriculture and clean water,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group.
The report focuses on management practices to control nitrogen and phosphorus pollution because these two pollutants are cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as two of the most significant pollutants impairing US rivers and lakes. According to a 2006 EPA report on wadeable streams, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution were found in nearly one-third of all streams studied.
“Cultivating Clean Water” provides an overview of existing state programs and gives a template for creating effective regulations that work well for farmers and the environment.
Part 1 of the report examines seven existing state regulatory programs that address agricultural nonpoint source pollution. These programs involve the state-wide implementation of a pollution management plan and/or best management practices that minimize farm pollution of surface water and groundwater.
Part 2 of the report focuses on five common-sense agricultural management practices that are required by several states: 1) vegetative buffers between crop land and water bodies 2) setbacks for applying manure and fertilizer near waterways 3) restrictions on applying manure in winter 4) keeping livestock out of water bodies and 5) restrictions on applying fertilizer in fall.
Wisconsin dairy farmer Jim Goodman thinks these recommendations make sense. "Properly matching animal numbers to pasture and crop acres, avoidance of winter manure spreading, maintaining natural vegetative buffers and using common sense can protect both surface and ground water," said Goodman. "At the same time it will keep our nutrients where we need them as opposed to sending them down the Mississippi to further burden the Gulf Dead Zone."
“Too many of our rivers and lakes are polluted and agricultural pollution is a big part of the problem,” said Jerry Peckumn, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer. “I enjoy canoeing, swimming, and fishing in the Raccoon River near my farm but it is often polluted with soil, algae blooms and bacteria. All farmers can implement simple practices to improve water quality like setting aside land along rivers and streams for native perennial plants that provide a buffer from fertilizer and pesticides getting into the river, stabilizes the soil in stream banks, and provides habitat for wildlife.”
The report finds that a number of states have adopted regulations to control agricultural pollution. However, progress is tempered by a number of common problems that undermine the effectiveness of the regulations. All states in the study fall short on enforcement and monitoring, largely as a result of limited funding and staff resources and political resistance to regulation of agriculture.
“This report represents the kind of regional approach that we will need to implement if we are to address the root cause of water quality impairment,” said Whitney Broussard of The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “A watershed problem, like the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, requires a watershed approach, and watersheds pay no attention to political lines. It will be imperative that local, state, and federal entities coordinate their efforts and complement the other's actions to reduce nutrient enrichment and improve water quality.”
“Each state needs to take responsibility for developing programs that will really work to help farmers control agricultural pollution,” said Jessica Dexter, Staff Attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “This includes reasonable regulations that everyone is expected to follow. We hope this report helps states begin that process without delay.”
The Environmental law & Policy Center is the Midwest’s leading environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization www.ELPC.org
The Mississippi River Collaborative is a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi River as well as regional and national groups working on issues affecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries. www.msrivercollab.org