Coalition Urges Congress to Act on Nutrient Run-Off

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James Laughlin, Editor

I've always felt that local water utilities do a pretty good job treating wastewater flowing from towns and cities across America. Of course there are spills and overflows, and no system is perfect, but as a nation we've come a long way in addressing the problem of point source discharges into U.S. waterways. That's not the case for non-point sources.

In the U.S. and around the world, water pollution from agriculture is costing billions of dollars a year, especially in developed countries. And the problem is only going to grow in places like China and India as farmers race to increase food production, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

While conditions are not that bad in the United States, nitrate contamination of drinking water is a pervasive problem in California's agricultural heartland and is bound to intensify in the coming years, according to a University of California, Davis study released in early March. The study shows chemical fertilizers and livestock manure are the main source of nitrate contamination in groundwater for more than 1 million Californians in the Salinas Valley and parts of the Central Valley.

Across the nation, more than 50% of rivers, streams, and lakes and nearly 60% of bays and estuaries are impaired because of excess nitrogen and phosphorus. For the majority of these waters, run-off from agricultural lands is the dominant source of nutrient impairment.

Last month, the Healthy Waters Coalition, a diverse coalition of stakeholders representing municipal water and wastewater utilities, state regulators, agricultural and conservation sectors urged Congress to include several policy recommendations in this year's Farm Bill, with the goal of strengthening the link between agricultural land and water quality.

The coalition offered three sets of recommendations on how Congress could help reduce nutrient runoff while supporting agricultural, water quality, and ecological goals.

The first recommendation would better target conservation programs to watersheds most affected by excessive nutrient run-off. The coalition suggested that funding for the programs be tied to performance standards.

The second recommendation would link federal agricultural payments and premium subsidies to practices that help farmers avoid adverse water quality impacts. One option would be to expand compliance requirements to include nutrient reduction activities. Another would involve removing language in crop and revenue insurance programs that stand as disincentives to nutrient reductions.

Finally, the coalition recommended that the Farm Bill include monitoring and evaluation tools and incentives to help farmers gather real-time data on nutrient abatement effectiveness. In addition, incentives should be created for increased collaboration between state and federal water quality monitoring programs.

The current Farm Bill was making its way through the legislative process at this writing. I can only cross my fingers and hope some of the coalition's recommendations survive the final cut.

The Healthy Waters Coalition's full recommendations can be found on the website of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies: http://www.nacwa.org/images/stories/public/2012-03-06hwc-pr.pdf.

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