Today I was reading a story in CS Monitor about the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act – how it has resulted in so much improvement to U.S. waters but also how those waters seem to be increasingly at risk moving forward. One of the main reasons for this is non-point source pollution. And the main source of non-point source pollution is agriculture, both crop farming and livestock. Non-point source pollution is a regulatory nightmare, but that does not mean we should not take further action to try to reduce it. The main efforts right now are to get farmers to use Best Management Practices (BMPs) to reduce nutrient-loaded runoff from entering waterways. There is no regulation, just education, Federal grant programs, and volunteer efforts at the local levels. Despite efforts, there are still farmers who cause obvious non-point source pollution, both knowingly and unknowingly. The article specifically discussed Lake Erie’s algae problems, here is an excerpt:
“Since the mid-1990s, however, the amount of phosphorus has begun to rise again. Some still comes from municipal sewage plants, but the chief culprit is farming. A watershed specialist for the NRCS, says farmers have in many ways improved their practices. Many no longer plow their land but use “no till” methods. At the same time, they have taken to applying fertilizer in the winter, when it is more likely to wash off the fields. He encourages farmers to adopt conservation methods such as using cover crops in winter, planting buffer strips along creeks and other waterways, testing soils to determine how much fertilizer their fields really need – and refraining from applying fertilizer in winter. Federal grants offer incentives. “It’s a big challenge and a complicated problem, but a lot of people are working on it,” he says. A fishing boat operator and his fellow charter captains do their part by taking farmers out on Lake Erie to show them what farming is doing to the lake. One farmer gazed upon the pea-green water and told him, “I don’t know whether to kiss you or hate you. I’m not going to be able to apply fertilizer without thinking of what you stand to lose.” “
I am a big proponent of local farming, and believe the model of buying food locally can do a lot to help improve many communities. So today I just happen to be picking up some local grass-fed beef at the Sylvan Dale Ranch and the rancher there started talking about a research project to improve the water quality of the Big Thompson River running through the ranch. Basically, local organizations are helping the ranch to fund improvements that will lower manure runoff into the river. Baseline water quality measurements will be taken before and after the improvements to get an understanding of the unit cost to cleanup a certain amount of nutrient loading in the river. To build further on this, there is a discussion that cities, citizens, and others downstream may be interested in paying the Ranch to implement improvements to improve water quality. Here is an example of a very progressive rancher who had presumably normal levels of non-point source pollution impacting the local river. Only now in 2012 are efforts starting to try to reduce this pollution, and it was through local education and initiatives that the efforts are taking place.
So, both the article and my ranch visit today seem to indicate that one of the greatest needs is education of farmers and ranchers, and I agree. I see the future of water quality improvements as including much more investment in local county extension and NRCS offices, as well as participation by research universities in the regional community. These are the offices that directly interact with local farmers, and have (or can establish) the types of personal connections that need to take place to educate farmers and implement solutions. Some of the largest resource problems facing our country are related to agriculture’s overuse and/or misuse of resources. The following is a list of the most obvious that come to mind:
- Inefficient use of water for irrigation
- Nutrient loading to waterways
- Pesticide and chemical loading to waterways
- Soil degradation and topsoil loss
- Erosion and river channel modifications
This list is not intended to say that farmers and ranchers are not resource conservation minded. They are probably some of the most conservation minded people, but that does not mean they are always implementing the best practices or thinking outside of their farm area. Also, there is the financial aspect, and most farmers and ranches operate with very thin margins that are not conducive to extra investments to reduce pollution. There is already a huge effort by EPA, USDA, NRCS, State agencies, and others to try to reduce non-point source pollution. So, here are a couple of ideas on how to be more aggressive on these problems:
(1) Educate every farmer in a watershed. Go door to door. Try to open up a conversation about water quality impacts, and costs and operational changes to make improvements. This should be done by having more NRCS local staff and country extension officers. The costs to implement this should be found by restructuring the Farm Bill – less direct crop subsidies, and more assistance to help farmers achieve a better product with less resource use. The knowledge to do this is out there but I believe it is not being disseminated fast enough to farmers and ranchers through current means. The most recent (2008) Farm Bill is full of terrible ideas, at least some of which can be removed and replaced with this type of program.
(2) Pay farmers to operate well-run farms (with BMPs). Whether it is through sale prices or direct contributions from downstream beneficiaries, farmers need assistance to implement water quality improvement measures. There are many Federal programs currently available, and the Ranch concept of cities and citizens paying is a novel approach worth considering. The other way to encourage farmers is to buy from those that are doing things the way you would like them to be done.
(3) Know the problems and act on them. The actions under #1 should give some indication of where non-point pollution problems persist, with no farmer interest to change. There needs to be action taken in these circumstances, because the impact is to a shared resource. Research should be at the point (or will be soon) that the direct costs of water quality impairments can be passed to the farmer or rancher – these could be water treatment plant costs, economic impact costs, river cleanup costs, etc. At the end of the day, sometimes volunteer efforts will not work, but they should be tried first. This whole idea under #3 does not have legal support – and this is why non-point source pollution persists today, even though it has been a known problem for decades. So, simply change the laws!!
Sylvan Dale Ranch - Loveland, CO – Water Quality Improvements
EPA Facts on water pollution
Most recent Farm Bill