Decrease Your Nutrient Footprint

April 23, 2016 02:10 AM
Decrease Your Nutrient Footprint

Strategies vary by state—make sure you know what’s required or recommended

Nestled in the headwaters of Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico, Ohio farmer John Buck has to monitor nutrients. It’s something he works at every day to protect his livelihood and third-generation farm.

“It’s important we do things the right way when people start pointing fingers,” Buck says. Ohio is among the stricter states when it comes to nutrient reduction regulations.

“It’s better to start using nutrient reduction practices now than be forced into costly changes,” Buck says. “Farmers need to get out of the mindset ‘we’ll wait until we’re forced to do it.’”

Water quality legislation dates back almost seven decades but efforts have accelerated in the past 20 years. For example, the Hypoxia Task Force (HTF), formed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consists of 12 states along the Mississippi River Basin. In the past five years, each state has created a nutrient reduction strategy to help point sources (such as wastewater treatment plants) and nonpoint sources (such as farms) decrease their footprint. For farmers, this could mean new or stricter recommendations or, in some cases, regulations for their crop and/or livestock operations.

“All states agreed to a common goal of 45% total nutrient reduction in the Gulf by 2035 and 20% by 2025,” says Ellen Gilinsky, EPA Hypoxia Task Force co-chair.

To work toward that goal, EPA provided a framework with eight components for states to include when creating nutrient reduction strategies:

  • Prioritize watersheds on a statewide basis for nitrogen and phosphorus loading reductions. Use the best information available to estimate nitrogen and phosphorus loads in rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs, etc., in all major identified watersheds.
  • Set watershed load reduction goals. Use specific numeric goals for each watershed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads.
  • Ensure effectiveness of point source permits in watersheds for municipal and industrial wastewater treatment facilities, all concentrated animal feeding operations and urban stormwater sources.
  • Focus on agricultural areas and look for opportunities to implement effective practices to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads. This can include incentive programs, and groups should learn from initiatives across the U.S.
  • Identify how the state will use government tools to guarantee nitrogen and phosphorus reductions from septic systems and storm water.
  • States should have accountability and verification measures to ensure nitrogen and phosphorus loads are reduced and on target to reach goals.
  • States will have annual public reporting of implementation activities and biannual reporting of load reduction and environmental impacts. This is reported according to each management activity in the target watersheds.
  • Develop a working plan and schedule for numeric criteria development, containing interim milestones such as data collection, data analysis, criteria proposal and criteria adoption consistent with the Clean Water Act. Include a reasonable timeline for completion.

During the 2015 summer Farm Journal College events, less than 20% of the 400 farmer-attendees from 22 states had read their state’s nutrient reduction strategy. Get to know your state plan. Some plans are more specific than others, but in the end you’ll be held accountable to your state’s standards.

“Each state’s strategy is, by nature, different,” Gilinsky says. “They have different crops, water and topography.” 

For example, in Ohio, Buck and fellow farmers have to be certified to apply nutrients on their own fields, which is a first in the U.S. 

States with tile drains, such as Iowa and Minnesota, recommend adding biofilters on field ends, saturated buffers or controlled wetlands to diminish nutrient loss. 

“Seventy percent of Minnesota’s nitrogen pollution is off crop land,” says Wayne Anderson, principal engineer in the watershed division of Minnesota EPA and coordinator of the state nutrient strategy. “Of that 70%, the largest pathway for loss is from tile drainage (37%).”

To reduce nutrient runoff from fields, common recommendations include cover crops and better nutrient application practices. Cover crops can reduce nutrient loss by 30%, Anderson says. Better nutrient management helps reduce loss of excess nutrients by 10% to 20%.

“We’ve really ramped up use of cover crops in the past couple of years,” says Matt Lechtenberg, Iowa Department of Agricultural Land and Stewardship water quality initiative coordinator. “Some estimate around 500,000 acres are involved in cover crops this year.” In 2009, Iowa had at least 9,000 acres in cover crops.

States are also working to educate farmers on proper nutrient management. “If 80% of our farmers would optimize fertilizer rates, especially farmers applying manure or growing soybeans in rotation with corn, we’d see a 13% reduction toward our target [level of nutrients in watersheds],” Anderson adds.

The good news is there’s financial incentives to reduce nutrient loss. The Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is providing up to $260 million in grants to improve water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability. The agency is accepting proposals for 2017 RCPP funding until May 10, 2016.

Grants and other funding are also available at the state level. “In Iowa, funding is allocated to advance practices in the nutrient reduction strategy,” Lechtenberg says. Talk to your state agencies to learn how you can earn incentives.

Nutrient reduction is a conversation that’s here to stay. Find out what your state is doing and be prepared for changes coming your way. “More regulations are coming,” Buck says. “I want to stay ahead of it.”

To access your state nutrient management plan and learn how it affects your operation, see the timeline below and select your state in the "Statewide Nutrient Reduction Strategies" tab.

Water Quality Programs Take Shape in the U.S.

Select the left and right arrows to move through the timeline. Links to full documentation are at the bottom of each slide.


1948- Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 created to help manage pollution and water quality

1972- Federal Water Pollution Control Act is rewritten and renamed Clean Water Act (CWA)

1977- Amendments made to the CWA regulations

1996- Gulf Hypoxia Task Force created to help slow hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico

2001- First action plan completed by Hypoxia Task Force

2003- EPA issues the first federal regulations requiring nutrient management plans for confined animal feeding operations (CAFO)

2008- Hypoxia Task Force updates action plan; EPA revises procedures for nutrient management plans

2011- Hypoxia Task Force starts pushing states to create nutrient reduction strategies

2012- Updated CAFO Permit Writers Manual enforces CAFO nutrient management plans

2013- EPA establishes the Animal Agriculture Discussion Group to develop understanding of how to implement CWA

2105- EPA launches Nutrient Recycling Challenge to recycle animal waste into sellable products

2015- EPA, et al., write “Beneficial Uses of Manure and Environmental Protection” brochure

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