By enacting the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress has extended an opportunity for the municipal wastewater community to prove what we’ve been saying for decades: if we want to see serious reductions of nutrient loadings in surface waters, it’s far more effective to invest in best management practices on the farm then in more treatment at publicly-owned treatment works (POTW).
The RCPP invites clean water utilities to become partners with farmers in their watersheds to help make progress on improving water quality by helping farmers make investments in more effective nutrient management practices. The RCPP can provide utilities with a potential alternative for addressing nutrient-related water quality challenges in a more affordable manner by working with local farmers to install nutrient management practices upstream rather than installing more treatment technology at the plant, and accessing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds for support.
Though partnering organizations must have the operational capacity to undertake a RCPP project initiative and be able to implement the project over multiple years, for utilities that serve a large urbanized area located in a watershed predominantly impaired by agricultural nutrient run-off, the RCPP offers a promising new mechanism to address water quality issues comprehensively and on a watershed basis.
We know that nutrient runoff is the greatest water quality challenge facing the United States today. According to State water quality reports, 80,000 miles of rivers and streams, 2.5 million acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds, 78% of the assessed continental U.S. coastal areas and more than 30% of estuaries are impaired due to excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients). In all, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attributes excess nutrients as the direct or indirect cause of impairments in over 50% of impaired river and stream miles, over 50% of impaired lake acres, and nearly 60% of impaired bay and estuarine square miles.
We also know that for the majority of these waters, nutrient run-off from agricultural lands is the dominant source of the nutrient impairments according to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Over this next decade, the critical challenge facing efforts to restore and maintain clean and safe water is reducing excessive amounts of nutrients in our waterways from agricultural sources.
The RCPP provides us with an opportunity to do so using the expertise and technical capacity available at municipal wastewater treatment utilities and potentially saving ratepayers money in the long run by avoiding costly treatment upgrades at the plant. We are already seeing regulators provide greater flexibility to clean water utilities facing more stringent nutrient controls so that they can make investments in upstream agricultural contributors before doing so at the plant. The Madison Metropolitan Sewage District’s Yahara Watershed Pilot project under Wisconsin’s Adaptive Management program is trying to become a model for this type of approach.The RCPP provides an opportunity for clean water utilities struggling with similar issues elsewhere in the country to show that this approach can work for you.