It should come as no surprise that our waterways – which millions of people directly rely upon for food and commerce all over the world – are in poor health. Ocean acidification, warming temperatures, plastic pollution and overfishing are all major contributors.  Add to that growing list of water woes a rapid uptick in massive dead zones over the past 75 years, where pollutants cause oxygen levels to drop and waters are unable to support life. 

The sobering stats on the ten-fold increase in ocean dead zones globally were reported on in Science on January 5th, in the most comprehensive analysis of existing data on the issue to-date. According to the research review, the number of dead zones globally has increased from around 50 in 1950, to over 500 now. The level of oxygen in the oceans has also dropped 2 percent, or 77 billion tons, since 1950.  This corresponds to a three-fold increase in population over the same time period, and a 10-fold increase in agriculture’s nitrogen use.

While climate change exacerbates the growth of dead zones, since warmer waters are able to hold less oxygen, the causes of the dead zones are the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural nutrient pollution, and sewage. Within the United States, the problem is largely one of excess agricultural nutrients flowing into streams and waterways as agricultural production has increased and intensified significantly since the middle of the last century.  

As a result of the 1972 Clean Water Act, the United States has effectively ratcheted down point source pollutants, such as sewage and power plants.  Non-point source pollution, primarily in the form of excess nutrients from animal agriculture and row crops as well as some forms of storm water runoff, is not regulated under the Clean Water Act and is largely left up to states to regulate. The result is that the agriculture sector is now the largest contributor to poor water quality of rivers and streams, a major contributor to groundwater contamination, and the third-largest cause for Lake Eutrophication, according to the EPA.

Unfortunately, the United States boasts the world’s second largest dead zone, in the Gulf of Mississippi. The Mississippi River Basin drains 41 percent of the continental United States and is home to one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. The positive news is that there are numerous opportunities to improve the effectiveness of federal programs that address nutrient pollution from the agricultural sector, particularly as Congress looks to reauthorize the Farm Bill.

Currently, state and federal agricultural pollution reduction strategies largely rely on voluntary practices through their state nutrient reduction strategies. Some states, such as Ohio or Minnesota, have some regulatory components, but there is little enforcement of standards. Under such voluntary programs, farmers are compensated for adapting practices that improve environmental outcomes, including water quality. 

Larger numbers of farmers have moved towards implementing conservation mechanisms, especially ones that directly benefit their operations, such as conservation tillage. However, in general, conservation measures are costly to implement and often provide no direct benefit to the farm operation, even if they provide an environmental benefit to the wider community. As a result, there is currently a deep disconnect between farmers and voters on just how much progress is being made on water quality and what more needs to be done.

One area ripe for revisiting is how various conservation projects are prioritized by the federal government. According to the Government Accountability Office, EQIP (the largest USDA conservation program) funds are not being appropriately directed to the highest priority regions for farm conservation. Additionally, while efforts are underway, their effects on water quality are somewhat diffuse, as USDA programs generally target environmental quality, and not water quality specifically. 

In the most recent edition of Choices, an agricultural economics publication, researchers discuss ways to improve outcomes of voluntary conservation measures supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states. With the reauthorization of the Farm Bill due this fall, Congress has a unique opportunity to help voluntary conservation measures more effectively deal with the problem of water quality.   Researchers suggest several ways to more cost-effectively manage the limited federal dollars for voluntary conservation, including:

  • Switching from a pay-for-implementation to pay-for-performance mechanism which prioritizes water quality outcomes versus farmer adaptation of practices;
  • Targeting dollars to regions with the highest levels of water quality impairments and where implementing measures would see the biggest water quality benefits to the watershed.  For example, it is estimated that 10 percent of cropland in the Mississippi River Basin is responsible for 30 percent of the nitrogen pollution, so targeting those areas would have an outsized positive impact on the watershed;
  • Reinvesting in monitoring, data and measurement of the issue, which is currently severely lacking and needed to inform the issue;
  • Focusing program dollars on farming practices that carry higher public benefit, versus funding practices that have higher private benefit.  One example is programs that fund the adoption of conservation tillage, which confers more benefit directly to the farmer and, therefore, has a higher chance of being implemented with or without federal funding. A high public benefit practice would be conservation buffers, which are costly to install and convey little individual benefit to the farmer but provide a huge benefit to public water quality.

Another idea that is being widely discussed among stakeholders is tying eligibility for programs such as crop insurance to water quality compliance. There are similar provisions already in place for soil conservation on highly erodible lands and wetlands. With lawmakers looking to streamline federal programs, conservation dollars must be applied wisely, to achieve the greatest possible outcome with the lowest possible cost to both farmers and the taxpayer. And with low commodity prices, it is important to promote practices that work economically for farmers.


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