ForumEfforts To Protect Water Quality From Agricultural Runoff
Streams and rivers in the United States and across the globe are the
lifeblood of Earth's inhabitants. Water is a basic, renewable natural
resource that provides not only crop irrigation, but also drinking water,
recreational uses, and habitat for water-living creatures. Clean and
usable water, then, should be a high priority for us all.
More than 90 percent of the nation's privately owned land is in agricultural
and forest production. Agriculture uses 65 to 70 percent of the total
fresh water resources in the United States and the world, and there
is increased interest in how agriculture affects water quality and in
the steps that can be taken to improve it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has long been an advocate of finding
ways to provide adequate and reliably clean water for the various uses
in this country. USDA and its chief scientific research agency, the
Agricultural Research Service
(ARS), have responded to droughts and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and
to the floods that inevitably sweep across the landscape, with innovative
and sound science to alleviate these challenges.
There are physical and biological dimensions in detecting contamination,
tracing the sources, defining treatment technologies, monitoring human
health consequences, and addressing both the pollution and its consequences.
Solutions to water pollution require not only new technologies but also
societal and institutional change. For example, the Farm Security and
Rural Investment Act of 2002 (the 2002 Farm Bill) has significantly
changed U.S. agricultural policy on conservation practices for water
quality and other environmental benefits.
Farmers, ranchers, and landowners can now receive incentive payments
for conservation buffers and other farming practices that reduce water
contamination on agricultural lands. At the same time, farmers and ranchers
can continue to produce food and fiber crops without retiring their
land or leaving it idle. People living on farms, in rural communities,
or in cities can all benefit from improved agricultural practices that
protect our nation's water quality.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture has recently developed handbooks and guidelines to assist
landowners in effectively using the CORE 4 concept. The CORE 4 approach
is associated with using key practices to significantly improve water
quality for cropland agriculture. These practices will also provide
opportunities for many other conservation benefits when applied as a
system. CORE 4 practices include various categories or types of conservation
buffers, conservation tillage, nutrient management, and pest management
ARS researchers have found that many conservation practices besides
CORE 4 items can be effective in improving water quality. These practices
include improved irrigation management systems, drainage management
systems, establishment of wildlife habitat, protection and restoration
of stream corridors or streambanks, and improved manure management practices
and treatment technologies.
ARS has a long tradition of providing ways to improve agricultural
production and devising more environmentally sound farming techniques.
Some of the solutions the agency has developed require long-term commitment
of resources for the problems to be alleviated. One such problem is
nonpoint-source pollutionthat is, pollutants that can't be traced
to a particular source or location. Because it is commonly believed
that nonpoint-source pollution comes mainly from agricultural activities,
ARS has played a leading role in water quality research from a national
and international perspective.
Water quality impairment can come from nutrients in manure and fertilizer;
soil sediment; other agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides; and
pathogenic organisms. Sometimes, nutrients or chemicals hitch a ride
on the soil particles that enter streams and rivers. Concentrated animal
production sites are of particular environmental concern because of
their potential to release nutrients, pathogens, particulate matter,
and gases into water and air.
ARS currently has 38 locations that address water quality issues. These are mainly associated with the ARS Water Quality and Management National Program and the Manure and Byproduct Utilization National Program. The article on page 4 describes 9 years of research on using conservation buffers to reduce nutrient runoff or loadings from manure application sites in the Southeast and to reduce herbicide runoff. Besides this research, which was conducted at Tifton, Georgia, ARS also studies the benefits and management of conservation buffers at various locations around the country, including Beltsville, Maryland; Ames, Iowa; Oxford, Mississippi; Columbia, Missouri; El Reno, Oklahoma; Corvallis, Oregon; University Park, Pennsylvania; and Florence, South Carolina.
Dale A. Bucks
"Forum" was published in the December 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.