Managing Nutrients to Protect Water Quality: Innovative Approaches

Speakers (l-r): Ann Mills, Tina Taylor, Jimmy Daukas, Jeanette Brown

Managing Nutrients to Protect Water Quality: Innovative Approaches

Thursday, June 9, 2011
9:30 – 11:00 a.m.
SVC 203/202 Capitol Visitor Center

On June 9, 2011, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and Water Environment Federation (WEF), in conjunction with honorary host Office of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), held a briefing on innovative, market-based approaches to controlling nutrient pollution in the nation's waters from agriculture. Fertilizer and manure applications can release excessive amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into local watersheds. These can degrade water quality, potentially causing human illness and harming aquatic ecosystems. This briefing focused on innovative agricultural solutions to these issues, including trading programs such as those used for the Long Island Sound and Ohio River Basin, and current on-the-ground nutrient management programs. A representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture discussed the agency’s development of solutions for controlling nutrients, including collaborations with farmers, ranchers and state and local partners to provide landowners with incentives to manage their lands in ways that help support clean water. Speakers for this event included:

  • Ann Mills, Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Tina Taylor, Director of Environment, Electric Power Research Institute
    Presentation (pdf format)
  • Jimmy Daukas, Managing Director, Agriculture & Environment Initiative, American Farmland Trust
    Presentation (pdf format)
  • Jeanette Brown, President, Water Environment Federation (Moderator)

Audio recording of briefing and Q&A (mp3)

Highlights from Speaker Presentations

  • Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus increase agricultural production but can cause excess algal growth in surface waters, leading to reduced oxygen.
  • Anthropogenic nitrogen and phosphorus come from point sources, such as power plants and wastewater treatment plants, and nonpoint sources such as agricultural runoff and atmospheric deposition. The ratio of point sources to nonpoint sources varies by region and affects the pollution control methods chosen.
  • Collaboration is essential, not just between federal agencies, but among a variety of federal, state, and local government agencies, NGOs, and stakeholders such as utilities, farmers, and landowners. Aligning the resources of several agencies will increase effectiveness as well.
  • When coupled with the idea that pollution control should target entire watersheds and ecosystems as a whole, Ann Mills, Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called this collaborative effort the “all lands, all hands” approach.
  • Current examples of how this approach is succeeding include watershed projects in the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi river basin, the Great Lakes, and the California Bay Delta.
  • The Conservation Effects Assessment Project, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, has shown that voluntary conservation efforts are working. In the Upper Mississippi river basin, sediment runoff has been reduced 69 percent, nitrogen surface loss by 46 percent, and total phosphorous loss by 49 percent.
  • The Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Program, currently under development, is an example of a voluntary market-based system to reduce nutrient pollution at the lowest cost. Permitted point sources who cannot cheaply reduce their nutrient pollution to acceptable levels will be able to buy credits from farmers who can.
  • Reducing nutrients through agricultural management practices can also bring many co-benefits, including habitat improvement, wetland restoration, and stabilization of stream banks.
  • Common concerns expressed by farmers about water quality trading programs include: a market could lead to more regulation; good stewards won’t be rewarded; the money won’t be worth the effort; and that the baseline for acceptable nutrient releases will change.
  • Some ways of helping farmers overcome fears include certainty initiatives, which insure that farmers who undertake water quality control measures that lead to a positive impact will be deemed in compliance with future regulations (for a period of time), and guarantees against loss from adoption of pollution reduction measures.
  • The Ohio River program will begin pilot trades next year, and hopes to be a fully functional market by 2015.


This briefing built on a WEF/EESI briefing from last September at which the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) presented research on nutrients in the nation’s streams and groundwater. NAWQA scientists found that phosphorous and nitrogen levels are above recommended maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) primarily due to non-point sources such as agriculture and storm drainage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consistently ranks nutrients as one of the top three causes of degradation in U.S. streams and rivers.

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