Position Statement: Approved by the WEF Board of Trustees December 12, 2006
The Water Environment Federation takes a keen interest in identifying and promoting opportunities within the agricultural community to support watershed-based management techniques that improve water quality. Watershed-based approaches to water quality challenges present unique opportunities for both point and non-point pollution sources to collaborate on projects that address our nation’s clean water needs. Water quality professionals, agricultural producers, and rural and urban communities share common interests as stewards of our water resources, including an interest in reducing pollutant loads and achieving water quality improvement in cost-effective ways. The 2007 Farm Bill affords an opportunity to continue making progress in implementing agricultural conservation best management practices that improve water quality, and provides an opportunity to foster greater collaboration between the municipal and agricultural communities.
As Congress considers re-authorization of agricultural support programs, the Water Environment Federation offers three primary strategies to achieve these goals:
- Strengthen and Target USDA Conservation Programs to Achieve Greater Water Quality Improvements in Critical Watersheds
- Foster Greater Collaboration and Partnerships between the Municipal Treatment Sector and Livestock Producers to Improve Manure Management
- Establish More Effective Mechanisms and Tools to Achieve Greater Nutrient Controls on Farms
Strengthen and Target Conservation Programs to Achieve Greater Water Quality Improvements in Critical Watersheds
The 2002 Farm Bill made important strides in establishing and strengthening agricultural support programs designed to improve on-farm conservation practices. These programs, including the Environment Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and the Conservation Security Program (CSP), assist farmers in implementing on-farm practices to help achieve environmental benefits, such as water quality. Although evaluating the full environmental benefits directly attributable to these programs is difficult, there is evidence that focused conservation spending can produce results. For example, between 1982 and 2003, total soil erosion on U.S. cropland declined from 3.06 to 1.75 billion tons per year, a decline of 1.31 billion tons per year, or about 43 percent.1 Much of this decline can be attributed to conservation compliance, removing highly erodible land under the Conservation Reserve Program, and providing farmers with support under the EQIP program to improve on-farm soil management techniques.
While USDA conservation programs have assisted farmers in deploying conservation best management practices, demand for these programs out-strips available funding. According to USDA FY2005 data, there were nearly 50,000 unfunded conservation program applications representing $2.4 billion and 93% of these applications were for EQIP, Wetlands Reserve Program and for the Grasslands Reserve Program.2 Fiscal year 2003 data indicate that for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, only 30,251 applications for conservation programs were funded, while 174,062 applications were denied.3 Conservation funding must also be better targeted to areas of greatest water quality concern. Severe water quality problems due to agricultural pollution persist throughout the country. According to state water quality assessments compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency, pollution due to agricultural run-off impacts 48% of impaired river miles and 41% of impaired lake acres (EPA, 2002). And, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay due to excess nutrients grow annually. A recent survey of agricultural producers found over 80% percent support for conservation programs targeted toward water quality improvements.4
- Shift agricultural commodity funding to a system of green payments and conservation programs and support market-based revenue streams to substantially increase resources for on-farm conservation practices.
- Reserve a significant portion of acres within the total CRP acreage cap for continuous sign-up and create an easement option within CRP to permanently retire the most sensitive lands.
- Improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of agricultural conservation programs by targeting conservation projects to impaired watersheds in which impairments to waterbodies can be attributed to agricultural run-off.
- Support the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) authorized under the 2002 Farm Bill to quantify the environmental benefits of conservation practices used by private landowners participating in selected conservation programs.
Foster Greater Collaboration between the Municipal Wastewater Sector and Livestock Producers to Improve Manure Management
Recent data show that over 70% percent of producers support increased financial and technical assistance to help manage animal wastes.5 The municipal wastewater treatment sector has developed effective and efficient systems to treat municipal and industrial wastes resulting in significant water quality gains since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Much of this technology expertise can be deployed by agricultural producers to help manage animal wastes. Confined animal feedlots, poultry growers and other livestock producers generate large quantities of manure that are often stored in on-site farm lagoons and spread as fertilizer on agricultural fields. Run-off from these operations contains high levels of nutrients that contribute to oxygen-depleting water quality problems such as hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Chesapeake Bay. The run-off also contains pathogens such as viruses, giardia and cryptosporidium, which pose dangerous public health concerns if humans come into contact with contaminated waters.
Model partnerships are developing whereby municipal agencies are providing waste treatment services to local livestock producers in an effort to deal with the challenge of manure management. For example, Inland Empire Utilities Agency (IEUA) is a wastewater treatment utility serving communities in the Chino River Basin in Southern California. In an effort to reduce excessive nutrient loadings to the Chino River Basin, IEUA partnered with 10 local dairy farmers to treat their cow manure (about 500 tons per day). With financing from the USDA, Department of Energy, and local ratepayers, IEUA installed and operates an anaerobic digester within a mile of the dairy farmers to process the manure, which produces methane gas and supplies power to IEUA and its customers (about 3 megawatts of electric power). In addition, IEUA hauls excess manure waste to a state of the art composting facility located at one of its waste treatment facilities. The manure is composted and turned into high quality biosolids,6 which provides fertilizer to local crop growers. The capital costs of this project exceeded $15 million and securing financing for it through USDA was a challenge due not only to its cost but also to the fact that as a local government agency, IEUA was ineligible for much of USDA program financing.
Wastewater treatment specialists also provide training and technical assistance to farmers to help them employ better on-farm manure management controls. For example, WEF members have provided training to farmers and manure management specialists, and WEF-sponsored specialty conferences on such topics as “Anaerobic Digestion as Applied to Animal Manure” and “Animal Residual Management, Policies and Alternative Technologies”, have attracted wide interest within the agricultural sector. These services could be expanded and offered as on-line instruction via the internet so that more farmers can participate.
- Establish a funding mechanism whereby local wastewater treatment utilities and manure management service providers can access funding to install and operate manure management technologies and practices on livestock farms.
- Eliminate barriers to regional and cooperative manure management and treatment projects between livestock producers and waste treatment service providers.
- Remove the funding cap under a single EQIP contract for projects that involve installation of alternative manure management technologies that reduce adverse water quality impacts.
- Support the formation of manure management districts whereby a cluster of livestock producers can establish manure treatment facilities serviced by third party wastewater treatment providers.
- Enhance the USDA’s Technical Service Provider Program by streamlining the program and making it cost-effective for private individuals and entities to deliver technical assistance.
- Support greater involvement by the wastewater treatment sector in delivering technical assistance to agricultural producers, developing best practice models of partnerships between the agricultural and wastewater treatment sectors, and sharing lessons learned.
Establish More Effective Tools to Achieve Greater Nutrient Controls on Farms
Excessive nutrient loadings from agricultural operations continue to present difficult water quality challenges in major watersheds throughout the country, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Great Lakes. Studies indicate that run-off from agricultural sources is often the greatest contributor to excessive nutrient loadings in these waterbodies. Nutrient loadings from agricultural sources are caused by leaching, volatilization and movement of soil enriched with fertilizer and manure for use on crops. Another potential for nutrient loading is run-off from on-farm manure storage. Currently, only livestock producers that are required to obtain NPDES permits under the Clean Water Act are required to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. Historically, agricultural policy has relied on voluntary measures and funding incentives to encourage farmers to reduce nutrient run-off. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that more must be done if we are to make any progress toward cleaning up impaired watersheds such as the Chesapeake Bay, and reducing the threat of hypoxia.
Increasingly, market-oriented strategies, such as water quality trading, hold potential as sound policy approaches to reduce nutrient loads to water bodies. Water quality trading provides an opportunity for wastewater utilities and farmers to collaborate on solving nutrient control problems in an impaired watershed. Though not a cure-all, nutrient credit trading between point and non-point sources can be a viable and useful addition to watershed nutrient reduction strategies. Trading programs can contribute to farm income while at the same time reducing point source nutrient control costs. Successful trading programs could also supply additional ecosystem benefits beyond nutrient control, such as improved habitat and biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The 2007 Farm Bill can provide significant incentives to encourage the development of water quality trading programs.
- Establish a water quality trading program that provides a mechanism for farmers to aggregate tradable credits on a watershed basis to sell in the market place. The program should include the following features:
- Support for qualified public and private entities to become aggregators and brokers for tradable credits;
- Financial and technical support to help farmers enter the market and defray transaction costs;
- Criteria for tradable water quality credits and performance verification measures;
- On-going research to provide best practice models and promote continual improvement; and,
- A water quality trading advisory committee comprised of farmers, municipal wastewater treatment agencies, industrial dischargers, and others to serve as advisors on policy and program development issues;
- Identify lessons learned from experiences with soil erosion reduction strategies to consider whether similar models can be used for on-farm nutrient reduction controls.
- Strengthen conservation incentives for greater nutrient reduction control by targeting conservation resources and providing more technical assistance.
- Require development of nutrient reduction plans on environmentally sensitive lands for farmers receiving commodity and conservation support funding.
- Support more research in the fate and transport of nutrients, the role of various agricultural sources in nutrient run-off, and the effectiveness of conservation practices in controlling nutrient run-off.
The upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill provides important opportunities for continued progress toward improving the quality of our surface and ground water resources. Through strategies incorporating watershed-based approaches that promote collaborative partnerships between the agricultural and wastewater treatment sectors, greater efficiencies and greater water quality improvements can be achieved. The wastewater treatment sector has a long history of deploying successful treatment technologies that can be transferred to the farm. At the same time, the wastewater treatment sector has developed a great deal of expertise and knowledge that can be used to help farmers be good stewards of our water resources. Establishing mechanisms and reducing barriers that foster greater collaboration between the farming and wastewater treatment sectors can benefit water quality.
1 USDA-2007 Farm Bill Theme Papers, Conservation and the Environment, June 2006, page 13.
2 Ibid, page 19.
3 2007 Federal Farm Bill: Concepts for Conservation Reform in the Chesapeake Bay Region, Chesapeake Bay Commission, Figure 4, page 11.
4 The 2007 Farm Bill: U.S. Producer Preferences for Agricultural, Food, and Public Policy, National Public Policy Education Committee, Farm Foundation, September 2006, page 12.
5 Ibid, Farm Foundation Survey, page 13.
6 Biosolids – solid organic matter recovered from sewage and manure treatment process and used, esp. as fertilizer.