On February 16, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the 2016 grants awarded through its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).  Authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP pushes for cross-sectoral partnerships between agricultural producers, water treatment entities, water districts, tribal governments, and nongovernmental institutions to increase the restoration and sustainable use of soil, water, wildlife and natural resource on regional or watershed scales.  Eighty four projects were awarded a total of $220 million in federal funding.  This is in addition to $500 million in partnership money, totaling $720 million for 2016.  While the pace of funding and scope of the programs is impressive, there remains no silver bullet for the issue of water quality.

Under RCPP, USDA is taking a new approach -- incorporating a wide range of stakeholders under one umbrella. It’s not unusual for an individual RCPP project to have 30 different groups all working towards one goal.  USDA is betting these new partnerships could be key to making progress, with Secretary Vilsack stating that RCPP puts “local partners in the driver's seat to accomplish environmental goals that are most meaningful to that community. Joining together public and private resources also harnesses innovation that neither sector could implement alone.”    


Tackling Water Quality – Voluntary or Mandatory Measures?

From the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico to water shortages in the Western United States, water quality and availability have received increasing attention from policymakers and communities. In the Upper Mississippi River Basin (which includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin), states are grappling with both local drinking water issues and the impact that agriculture has on water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.  The debate in the region hinges on whether or not voluntary water quality measures are sufficient to tackle the issue, or if further regulation is necessary.

Some argue that voluntary measures are insufficient to tackle the scope of the problem in the Upper Mississippi Watershed; instead, mandatory conservation measures should be required for farms.  In 2015, the dead zone measured 6,474 square miles, well above the 1,900-square-mile goal set in 2001. EPA states that progress on Gulf water quality remains two decades behind schedule. 

A voluntary approach that gives flexibility to stakeholders is supported largely by states, commodity groups, farmers and USDA programs such as RCPP.  States and agricultural groups should be credited with early action. State-level Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies embody such voluntary approaches: agricultural groups are working with growers to prevent nutrient loss from fields, and public-private funding through programs like RCPP is harnessed to help solve the issue.  These voluntary measures largely seek to find economical ways for farmers to implement water quality measures (such as cover crops) to reduce the loss of nutrients from their fields.  


Des Moines and Its Implications for Federal Regulations

In Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit brings the issue of whether to regulate to the fore. The case is against three drainage districts serving agricultural districts in rural Iowa; these drainage districts also provide most of the drinking water for the city of Des Moines.  The water utility argues that high costs of denitrification, borne by ratepayers, is due primarily from excess nitrogen from farms in the three drainage districts. They want the drainage districts to bear the cost and responsibility for reducing nitrogen in the water system.

Currently, agricultural sources of water pollution are regulated as nonpoint source pollution under the Clean Water Act. Nonpoint source pollution is diffuse pollution that originates from water or snowmelt accumulating man-made pollutants as it travels downstream into rivers and lakes. The Des Moines Water Works utility would like to see them regulated as point-source pollutants under the Act, which would make it possible to regulate the water discharged from farms. 


Conservation, Precision Agriculture & the Farm Bill

On the other side are those who say that regulation of agricultural runoff should be avoided – that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for farmers with different crops, soil types, and field topographies.  What works for one farm may not work for another. Underscoring this point is the fact that adoption rates for cover crops and other conservation measures have been uneven and slow, despite the fact that they have been long-recognized as beneficial. Cover crops may add significant operating expenses as well as additional complexity to farm operations. Not all species of cover crops do well in all regions.  USDA, researchers, non-profits and commodity groups are working to right-size conservation for farmers, but progress remains elusive.

A new tool – precision agriculture – is what some see as the Holy Grail for water quality.  Blending big data and agriculture, precision agriculture aims to apply the right level of nutrients, at the right rate, the right time and the right place (the “4 Rs”), using sophisticated techniques such as drones, GPS, and satellite observations. Nutrient management at the field level can be understood in real time, and assist with conservation planning.

In the endless debate over water regulation, stakeholders seem to agree on one thing. Without strong Farm Bill programs, voluntary programs are ineffective. Despite recognition of the importance of conservation, Congressional appropriators continually seek to cut mandatory funding of the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title. This tug of war over conservation funding is expected to continue and will likely impact the state of the next Farm Bill.  While conservation dollars primarily go to farmers and rural communities, they benefit all through improved water, soil and air quality. 


For more information see:

USDA, Partners to Invest $720 Million in Large-Scale, Targeted Conservation Projects Across the Nation, USDA 

Q&A: Bill Stowe - CEO, General Manager of Des Moines Water Works, Agriculture.com

Dead Zones & Drinking Water, Part 1: RCPP and Review, FarmDoc Daily

Environmental Regulation of Agriculture: The Des Moines Water Works Issue, Policy Matters

2015 Gulf of Mexico dead zone ‘above average’, NOAA News