We know that over 300 coastal estuaries suffer some degree of hypoxic conditions where aquatic life cannot survive due to excessive nutrient loads in these waters. We know that over a third of all rivers and streams and over half of all lakes cannot support the uses for which States have determined ought to be supported in these waters, such as swimming or fishing, due to the presence of excessive nutrient loads. We also know that over 1.5 million people rely on drinking water from groundwater wells contaminated by excessive levels of nitrates, a pollutant controlled under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The U.S. Geological Survey has been studying the sources of excessive nutrient loads in surface and groundwater for nearly two decades and has determined that while there are four primary sources, including municipal sewage treatment plants, agricultural sources are by far and away the dominant source. Frequently used examples that illustrate just how dominant agricultural sources include the Chesapeake Bay, where more than 40% of nutrient loads are the result of runoff from agricultural operations; and the Gulf of Mexico, where it is over 80%. By comparison, sewage treatment accounts for less than 20% and 10%, respectively, of the nutrient loads in these waterbodies.
So, the question is, Can we expect action from Congress during the 2012 Farm Bill debate to tackle the nutrient challenge straight on? Well, I really hope so, but there are legitimate challenges to making real progress in the short-term, including both policy and politics.
On the policy front, the first barrier is one of simple education. We were asked by a congressional staffer—an expert who is well respected in agricultural policy matters—why nutrients are considered a bad thing when we need nutrients to live. Raising the level of awareness among Members of Congress as to the ill-effects of too many nutrients in our waterways is a key step. Second, the complexity of identifying realistic policy approaches to a problem that potentially affects two million farms should not be underestimated. While there are many good ideas, the magnitude of implementation, oversight, and enforcement of any of them can easily overwhelm the most earnest bureaucrat. Third, and perhaps the greatest challenge, is politics and a resistance to any infringement by government on the rights of private landowners to manage their property without interference. These are all legitimate concerns that must be worked through before lasting and effective policy solutions will be accepted by the agricultural community.
The issue won’t go away, and NACWA plans to continue pursuing policy solutions to the nutrient challenge that brings agricultural operations to the table in a meaningful way. The good news is that just as one can rely on paying taxes, we can rely on Congress reauthorizing a Farm Bill every five years, which means there will be ample opportunity to continue educating members about the issue and to seek policy solutions that have real impacts on water quality.