Addressing water quality concerns from non-point source pollution (as in from city streets, residential yards and farm fields) has always been a difficult challenge. How do you know where the pollution is coming from? How do you divide out responsibility for reducing pollution in a fair manner that actually helps reduce environmental impacts on the streams, rivers and lakes we all depend on for life? Until recently, these challenges, combined with a fairly weak Clean Water Act -- at least in terms of how non-point source pollution can be managed, have kept water quality issues and regulations from encroaching in any real way on most of the agricultural industry. But that seems to be changing.
This Fall, two court rulings have opened the door for EPA to begin setting limits on non-point source pollution in all waterbodies that are impaired. In one case, the American Farm Bureau lost its challenge against EPA's ability to set limits on nonpoint source pollution on the Chesapeake Bay basin. Another case coming out of New Orleans gave EPA six months to come up with numeric limits on this type of pollution for all impaired waterbodies - or explain why such a move was not necessary to protect water quality. This is a big change in the status quo of how water quality issues will be managed. The court said that EPA's claim that it had no jurisdiction to compel states to clean up this type of pollution was not accurate. The Washington Post described it this way:
"In a Sept. 20 decision written by Judge Jay C. Zainey, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana sided with environmental groups that challenged the EPA’s "hands-off approach" to managing pollution.
An EPA attempt to dismiss the suit was denied. The court was not persuaded by the agency’s argument that it was leaving it to states to manage pollution, with EPA’s help, because it had no jurisdiction to compel a cleanup.
Zainey gave the EPA six months to at least begin to develop a plan. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which represented the federal government in the suit, said only that its lawyers were reviewing the decision and had not decided its next step."
That same Washington Post story also highlighted a recent report out about, you guessed it: green slime! Some choice quotes:
"At least 21 states closed lakefront beaches and issued public health advisories as a result of toxic algae between May and September; last year 20 states took similar actions.
Toxic algae is the byproduct of the same types of pollution that causes dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay — phosphorous and nitrogen from livestock manure and chemicals sprayed on crops such as corn that spills from farms into assorted waterways during moderate to heavy rains."
The danger for agriculture in all of this is that if water quality regulations are done badly -- as in prescribing a set amount of nitrogen fertilizer allowed per acre regardless of the multiple variables that can affect fertilizer runoff, the cost could be great in terms of yield.
The good news is that there are better methods for reducing runoff -- or as I like to call it, increasing nitrogen efficiency. Just today USDA and EPA announced that they are launching a partnership to support water quality trading -- a concept that would allow for more flexibility in how pollution reductions are achieved.
"New water quality trading markets hold incredible potential to benefit rural America by providing new income opportunities and enhancing conservation of water and wildlife habitat," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "Additionally, these efforts will strengthen businesses across the nation by providing a new pathway to comply with regulatory requirements."
And, if you are a corn grower, there is a powerful tool out there right now developed by Cornell University, called Adapt-N, that can provide a farmer with a much more accurate recommended rate for nitrogen fertilizer -- and recommends the best time to apply it. Trials of Adapt-N to date have saved farmers who have used it a range of $15-30/acre on fertilizer costs while maintaining or improving yield. For more info on this tool and how it can help address water quality issues that government and the food supply chain are increasingly pushing on, check out www.FineTuneNitrogen.com
Once again, there are positive pathways for agriculture as a sector to protect its bottom line and navigate concerns about the environment -- but it requires getting engaged early and in a strategic way!