The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on farming, nutrient management, and water quality. The briefing examined ongoing water quality challenges and farmer efforts to reduce nutrient loss through effective, voluntary, farm-level conservation practices. The 2014 Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is demonstrating how farmers can partner with interested parties (commodity groups, communities, NGOs, agribusinesses, etc.) to further the voluntary adoption of these best management practices. RCPP encourages partnerships between agricultural producers and stakeholders to address regional problems while maintaining or improving agricultural productivity. Administered by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), RCPP has $1.2 billion in federal funding, with USDA partners providing matching funds for a total of $2.8 billion through 2018. RCPP combines and reinforces four pre-existing NRCS conservation programs.
- Jonathan Coppess, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Policy, University of Illinois, provided an overview of several major water quality challenges in the United States, including the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, which is targeting the downstream release of nitrates from agricultural storm water discharge.
- Farmers and stakeholders are working together to retain nutrients in fields. Farmers have a strong incentive to keep nutrients in their fields because nutrient loss can be a big economic loss for them. Regulators must consider the costs and challenges farmers face as they seek to reduce nutrient losses.
- The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy relies on a scientific-based approach and suggests a menu of options to reduce nitrogen, including using nitrification inhibitors, cover crops, wetlands, buffers, and bioreactors (which can reduce nitrogen use by up to 40 percent).
- Federal conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), are necessary to offset costs and risks to farmers. These programs help farmers keep their fields in production while implementing conservation practices.
- The newest conservation program from the 2014 Farm Bill, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), is another tool to find solutions at the farm level that will have lasting effects at the watershed scale. RCPP grants convene stakeholders at multiple levels and promote farm business management and precision agriculture technology to address conservation challenges.
- Adam Sharp, Vice President of Public Policy, Ohio Farm Bureau, noted that two-thirds of Ohio waterways drain to the south and one-third drain to the Great Lakes (Lake Erie). The excessive release of nutrients in the state can have vast effects across a wide area.
- In May 2010, a harmful algal bloom occurred in Grand Lake St. Marys and reminded Ohio that it has an ongoing issue with dissolved reactive phosphorous that is causing health issues across the state.
- Ohio was part of the first block of states to receive funding through RCPP. Ohio, Michigan and Illinois shared $17.5 million to implement on-the-ground conservation practices for sediment and nutrient management.
- The state has two new laws related to nutrient management in agriculture. SB1 restricts the application of nutrients on frozen, snow-covered or saturated soil in 24 counties within the Western Lake Erie Basin. SB150 was the first law in the nation to require farmers to complete a fertilizer applicator certification program prior to applying nutrients to their fields. Since its enactment in 2014, over 6,000 farmers have been certified.
- The Ohio Farm Bureau (OFB) is partnering with researchers and USDA to better understand nutrient management and flows. OFB has invested $1 million into a water quality action plan; it has updated its soil fertility recommendations [healthy soil has better water holding capacity, reducing runoff]; and it is working to increase outreach and education. OFB is also participating in the development of Healthy Water Ohio, a 20 to 30-year water resource management strategy.
- Leon Corzine, family farm owner, Illinois, discussed his use of conservation practices on his family soy, corn and Angus cow farm. He implements sustainable practices to leave his farm in a better condition for the next generation. For Corzine, sustainability means decreasing soil erosion and increasing efficiency, which translates to higher yields and productivity.
- Technology has allowed his farm to adopt sustainable practices and increase productivity, in part by using resources more efficiently. New equipment and higher quality seeds have lessened insect damage and reduced fertilizer application. Conservation tillage, which leaves more residue on the surface to control pests, has allowed part of his operations to become insecticide-free.
- Farms across the nation have benefited from new techniques and technologies. Over a 30-year period (1980-2011), U.S. farms have lowered the amount of land needed to grow corn by 30 percent; reduced soil loss per bushel by 67 percent; lowered the quantity of water used per bushel by 53 percent; decreased the energy used to produce a bushel by 43 percent; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions per bushel by 36 percent.
- Despite this progress, there are still natural variables—such as drought and extreme rainfall—that cannot be predicted and can ruin the best laid plans. Better data collection to identify problems and prescribe solutions is critical as different options are tested. Because each farm is different, Corzine emphasized the need for more farmer input on policymaking.
- Tariq Baloch, Water Utility Plant Manager, City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, discussed how agriculture is a critical sector for his city and region, with many food processing and biotech companies located in Cedar Rapids.
- Baloch highlighted the existing connection between soil and water quality, and how RCPP is addressing this connection. RCPP has designated the Mississippi River Basin as a critical conservation area.
- In 2014, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was updated. It uses a science- and technology-based approach to reach goals set by the Hypoxia Task Force. The strategy framework has prompted the collaboration of multiple agencies to effectively monitor both point (identifiable) and non-point (diffuse) sources of nutrient runoff.
- Extreme weather events have impacted Cedar Rapids's ability to control water flows and water quality in the city. In 2008, downtown Cedar Rapids experienced a 31-foot flood, impacting 120,000 people and large industries. The U.S. Geological Survey has now partnered with the city to provide water quality monitoring and better water retention.
- Cedar Rapids does not have a method to remove nitrates from drinking water and therefore relies on monitoring to provide safe drinking water.
- Partnerships are critical, as they provide the financial and technical assistance necessary to successfully improve soil health and water quality. Cedar Rapids, for example, has preferred to pursue problem-solving collaboration rather than litigation to improve it water quality. Its Middle Cedar Partnership Program (MCPP) brings together 17 partners, including USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, three soil and water conservation districts, DuPont Pioneer, The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Farm Bureau, and several Iowa agricultural trade associations
- The MCPP and RCPP are providing Cedar Rapids with $4.3 million over the next five years. Using a watershed framework, the city will develop monitoring and evaluation plans, implement better management practices, and conduct outreach activities.
- John Larson, Executive Director, American Farmland Trust, pointed out that addressing water quality issues and food production will become more challenging with a growing population. It is expected that we will need to produce as much food globally in the next 40 years as we did in the past 1,000 years. At the same time, total farmland acreage is shrinking. Over a third of all development in the United States has occurred in the last 30 years, encroaching onto farmland. Preserving what remains is critical.
- Aside from providing more funding to working lands, the 2014 Farm Bill helps farmers to solve and prevent problems by setting up collaborative frameworks. By implementing a place-based approach, RCPP is maximizing the number of participants that can tackle multiple conservation issues in a specific region.
- Larson praised precision agriculture but noted that it must be paired with increased stewardship and voluntary action.
Addressing water quality will require sustained partnerships among farm communities, commodity groups, NGOs, agribusinesses, state, local and federal government to further adopt voluntary best management practices. Programs in the 2014 Farm Bill, like RCPP, are helping farmers leverage significant private investments to improve field management in modern commercial farming operations.