Tighter Farm Regulations Called for by New Report

To keep drinking water clean, environmental groups claim current voluntary programs don't go far enough.

Published on: Mar 30, 2010
A new report, "Cultivating Clean Water," examines the effectiveness of state-based regulatory programs to control agricultural water pollution.

The report was issued by the Environmental Law and
Policy Center
and the Mississippi River Collaborative, two environmental activist and policy groups.

Carrot… or stick?
Until now, most 'best management practices,' such as buffer strips along streams, have been driven by a 'carrot' approach – voluntary programs backed by government funding. However, the report suggests that a 'stick' approach – broader restrictions and regulations across state lines - would result in cleaner water.

The report claims that state-based regulations on
farm nutrient management practices are poorly implemented and fragmented. The groups say manure, fertilizer and other agricultural pollutants are a significant source of pollution affecting a number of lakes and streams across the country, endangering drinking water supplies, threatening wildlife and contributing to the so-called Dead Zone (hypoxia) in the Gulf of Mexico.

Elevated nitrate levels
The 1987 amendments to the federal Clean Water Act directed states to develop programs to control "non-point" sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff. "However current approaches are not delivering measurable improvements in water quality," says Chris Jones of the Des Moines Water Works. "We continue to see elevated nitrate levels in the Raccoon and
Des Moines Rivers that provide our source water, and some problems appear to be getting worse."

The report focuses on management practices to control nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. They are cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as two of the most significant pollutants impairing
U.S.
rivers and lakes. According to a 2006 EPA report on wadeable streams, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution were found in nearly one-third of all streams studied.

The report focuses on five agricultural management practices that are required by several, but not all, states: 1) vegetative buffers between crop land and water bodies 2) setbacks for applying manure and fertilizer near waterways 3) restrictions on applying manure in winter 4) keeping livestock out of water bodies and  5) restrictions on applying fertilizer in fall.

The report finds that a number of states have adopted regulations to control agricultural pollution; however, all states in the study fall short on enforcement and monitoring, largely as a result of limited funding and staff resources and political resistance to regulation of agriculture.