Agriculture is “America's No. 1 water quality challenge” for the 21st century, Lawrence Libby, professor of rural/urban policy at Ohio State University, said at this year's Agricultural Outlook Forum 2001 at Washington.

“This is not because farms are huge polluters, but because other sources have been largely controlled and the non-point sources, of which farming is one, then rise to the top of the ‘to do’ list.” The Environmental Protection Agency says 40 percent of surveyed waters still are not fishable and swimmable, and that agriculture “is most of the problem.”

While water quality management in the U.S. has emphasized mandatory measures for confined animal feeding operations, Libby notes, measures for non-point sources such as farming have been voluntary. “The key policy question is whether this voluntary, incentive-based approach will hold up or be replaced by a more regulatory policy regime. There clearly are pressures for the tougher approach.”

The EPA is now holding hearings on proposed revisions to further strengthen regulations governing approximately 39,000 confined animal feeding operations in the U.S. The estimated costs of compliance are $850 million to $940 million per year. The proposal is expected to result in “pointed debate” between farm interests worried about the economic viability of smaller operations and opposing groups who are arguing the public's interest in cleaner water.

“I doubt there is widespread popular sympathy for these confined animal feeding operations,” Libby says. “Most of us like a good steak, but these operations are considered a first order locally undesirable land use. People like farms in general and the green open space that provides welcome aesthetic relief from urban sprawl, but large confined animal operations are not part of that picture. Further, there is little public support for large farms that seem more like food factories than family-run businesses.”

All this, he says, is focusing attention on licensing of operators, nutrient management plans, and state regulations that impose stiffer thresholds than federal rules.”

All states are in the process of calculating Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for certain pollutants in certain watersheds. “These are essentially ‘pollution budgets’ for each stream, to be allocated among water users, presumably including farms as non-point sources,” Libby says. The job is to be completed within the next 15 years.

“This is not new law — TMDLs are part of the 1972 Clean Water Act — but the policy thrust is new, and agriculture is right in the middle of it.” States are directed to identify offending stream segments and then see that TMDLs are not exceeded, but they “generally have not proceeded aggressively, and until recently the EPA has not pressed the matter. Several lawsuits have helped spur the EPA to action.”

At issue is whether Section 303d of the act is intended to include non-point sources, or whether non-point coverage is meant to be limited to Section 319, which deals with watershed management. “The EPA believes it has the authority and is gently pushing the states to respond,” Libby says. “So far, however, primary discretion remains with the states in handling non-point, and in blending point and non-point rules. But states know that non-point is the primary problem, and that it inevitably leads them to the farm gate.”

If state action isn't sufficient, the EPA must put a TMDL plan in place for that state. “This gets the EPA very close to the ‘no-fly zone’ for federal control of land use within states — a dangerous point at best. Since the courts and prevailing public opinion prohibit federal regulation of state land use patterns, it is questionable whether the EPA could carry out its own TMDL plan.”

Political questions

Agriculture “faces some important questions of political strategy” in this matter, Libby says. “American people want, and feel they deserve, cleaner lakes and streams, and it is increasingly apparent that farms are a big part of the problem. At the same time, surveys show that farms and farmers enjoy enormous support among U.S. consumers. People feel that farming is an honorable and admirable profession.”

One obvious strategy, Libby says, is “to draw on that reservoir of good will for farming and resist efforts to raise the bar for farmers as stewards of land and water. That has been the strategy thus far. Major farm organizations have sought to exempt agricultural non-point sources from TMDLs and to maintain voluntary, incentive-based approaches. They have quibbled with definitions and tried to invoke the ‘sound science’ shield, when it really is a question of whose science will prevail.” That, he says, is a losing strategy because:

  1. Consumer support for farming will not extend to abuse of land and water. Most of the popular appeal of farming and farmland stems from these open space amenities, not from the food commodities these farms produce.

  2. Consumers/taxpayers are more generally aware than ever of the huge financial investments they have made in farming. They still support farming and the needed financial help, but expect something in return, including safe food, land stewardship, and water quality.

  3. Farm consolidations, contract farming, and large scale livestock production diminish the popular image of farming as a family enterprise, with all its attendant virtues. Increasingly, people feel that large farms should have the same obligations as other industries, including doing whatever it takes to clean up the nation's waterways.

  4. Many states have already beefed up non-point enforcement, both to avoid and to respond to farm-based pollution. The trend is clearly toward more mandatory measures.

“I don't see a major crackdown on farms in the near future,” Libby says. “U.S. policy is always incremental. But I do see the need for agricultural interests to take a positive stance on water quality. We know that most farmers care about this issue — but it is time for them to be out front on it. They must act pre-emptively and do what is necessary to measurably reduce farm-based pollution and to work with consumer and natural resources groups in the process.”

Promising trends

Two trends show particular promise for farmers and improved water quality, Libby says. The first is increased emphasis on watershed management that can tailor the policy mix to the resources and people of the region. The second is toward innovations such as permit trading between point and non-point sources within an overall TMDL framework for a watershed, and “green payments” for environmental amenities in conjunction with reducing environmental damage.

“The challenges of implementing such programs are substantial, but the stakes for agriculture are such that the effort will be worthwhile,” Libby says. “America's people want cleaner water and will insist that farmers do their part to insure that it happens.” To that end, he says, “there will be a strong regulatory underpinning to any future effort to reduce agricultural non-point pollution.”