The USDA's new Regional Conservation Partnerships Program aims to improve water quality by reducing agricultural runoff in targeted watersheds. The challenge is, how do we help make sure this new approach is successful?
Blog Posts: nutrient pollution
For more than 30 years, the USDA has worked to reduce water pollution by offering farmers throughout the nation financial and technical help to put conservation measures in place. While these efforts have successfully addressed environmental problems at the individual farm level—such as soil erosion—agriculture remains a key source of water pollution.
However, it’s only a small portion of farms that generate the majority of agriculture’s contribution to U.S. water pollution. New research shows that targeting conservation funds to these farms with the most potential to reduce pollution could be up to 12 times more cost effective than the usual practice of disbursing funds widely. And encouragingly, a new USDA program aims to capitalize on a similar targeted approach.
The Gulf of Mexico has the largest dead zone in the United States and the second-largest in the world. Dead zones form when excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous wash into waterways and spur algal blooms, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish, shrimp, and other marine life. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone can range between an astounding 3,000 and 8,000 square miles. At its largest, it’s about the size of Massachusetts.
Reducing this growing dead zone problem is a huge scientific, technical, economic, and political challenge. It’s a conundrum that agricultural and environmental experts from across the United States will deliberate this week at the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.
One new approach they’ll discuss is voluntary nutrient trading. According to a new study conducted by WRI staff for the EPA, this strategy could be used in the Mississippi River Basin to cost-effectively reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and shrink the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
- LEARN MORE: Download the full study on the economic feasibility of nutrient trading in the Mississippi River Basin.
This post was co-authored with Bob Diaz, a WRI partner and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
This year’s extreme weather events—a warm winter, even warmer summer, and a drought that covered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States—has certainly caused its fair share of damages. But despite the crop failures, water shortages, and heat waves, extreme weather created at least one benefit: smaller dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
On a normal year, rain washes pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous from farms and urban areas into the two bodies of water, fueling algae growth. When this algae dies, it consumes oxygen and creates hypoxic areas, or “dead zones,” which can kill fish and other marine life. Less rain this year meant fewer pollutants making their way into the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The Chesapeake Bay’s summer dead zone was the smallest since record-keeping began in 1985, and the Gulf of Mexico’s covered one of the smallest areas on record.
Agricultural production often comes at the expense of water quality. As my colleague, Mindy Selman, noted in a recent blog post, “Agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.”
But food security shouldn’t come at the expense of water quality—and in fact, it doesn’t have to. This is a topic I’m discussing at a World Water Week side event, “Securing Water Quality While Providing Food Security: The Nutrient Question.” Through the use of effective tools and strategies, we have the power to uphold water quality while still feeding a population that’s expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.
Our water systems are currently being threatened by the crops we grow and food we produce. In many countries, agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.
WRI’s water quality team will be in Stockholm next week to discuss this very topic at a side event entitled, “Securing Water Quality While Providing Food Security: The Nutrient Question,” an event co-organized by Water Environment Federation and Environmental Defense Fund. This session, which takes place on August 29th, will build on the work WRI’s water quality team has done with its partner, Dr. Bob Diaz at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to evaluate the scale and scope of global nutrient-related water quality challenges, including how these issues are driven by agriculture.
Water supply and availability could be the most pressing problem restricting China’s economic growth in the next 10-15 years, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank. Not only are water resources limited (only about 30 percent of total water resources are available for use), but many surface and groundwater sources are suffering from severe pollution.[^1] The Chinese government is now looking to invest in new ideas to improve water quality and supply, and WRI is using its water quality trading expertise to explore the potential of market-based methods to improve water quality and increase the supply of clean water from Chao Lake, the fifth-largest lake in China.
The future of farming, food supply, and protection of natural resources are utterly interdependent.
While all economic sectors depend to some degree on ecosystem services, agriculture has the most intimate relationship with nature. Agriculture depends on healthy ecosystems for services such as pollination for nearly 75% of the world’s crop species, freshwater, erosion control, and climate and water regulation. It also employs 40% of global population and about 70% at the base of the pyramid.
2011 will be an important year for the Chesapeake Bay, not only because scientists are predicting an unusually bad “dead zone” this summer.
Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) that establish the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that the Bay and its tidal tributaries can safely receive each year. The TMDLs divide the pollution loads among sources, such as urban areas regulated for stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural lands.
Now, responsibility for implementing the TMDLs falls to states in the Bay watershed that have been delegated authority from EPA to run water quality programs. By December 1, 2011, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia will submit plans to EPA that explain how sources within their jurisdiction will meet and maintain the TMDLs.
The December deadline has states reviewing legislation and regulations that could reduce the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that impairs Bay water bodies.
A new report on the state of the world’s oceans is gaining considerable attention this week. The report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature warns that combined threats to oceans are creating conditions where there is “a high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.” Dr. Alex Rogers, scientific director of the IPSO, calls the new findings “shocking.”
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