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ARS Home » Plains Area » Fort Collins, Colorado » Center for Agricultural Resources Research » Soil Management and Sugarbeet Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #377354

Research Project: Management Practices for Long Term Productivity of Great Plains Agriculture

Location: Soil Management and Sugarbeet Research

Title: Water quality

item Delgado, Jorge

Submitted to: Soil and Water Conservation Society
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: 12/1/2020
Publication Date: 12/15/2020
Citation: Delgado, J.A. 2020. Water Quality. In: Delgado, J.A., Gantzer, C.J., Sassenrath, G.F., editors. Soil and Water Conservation: A Celebration of 75 Years. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society. p. 123-139.

Interpretive Summary: Prior to around the 1930s to 1940s, water quality policies, resources, and practices in the United States focused on impacts from erosion, and it was not until the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) was enacted in 1948 that there was a national policy on water quality. This legislation focused on water quality issues related to soil erosion, sedimentation, and flooding control, but it would be decades before amendments to the FWPCA were enacted to address chemical and agrochemical challenges (i.e., the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, and later the 1977 amendment, which came to be known as the Clean Water Act of 1977, as well as 1987 amendment known today as the Water Quality Act). Decades prior, in 1935, the U.S. Congress authorized and directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA. The establishment of SCS (later renamed in a 1994 amendment as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS) contributed to the improvement of water quality by creating an agency that led the effort to mitigate erosion, an action that also contributed to reduced transport of agrochemicals to water bodies. This action, together with the FWPCA and its subsequent amendments, were key components of the 20th century efforts to protect water quality in the USA. Although there have certainly been success stories that have contributed to significant advances in water quality efforts because of reductions in erosion, a recent publication from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (USGAO) noted that an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment in 2013, several decades after the enactment of the Clean Water Act, found over 50% of the assessed waters in the USA did not meet established water standards for fishing, swimming, or drinking (USGAO, 2013). A changing climate and the occurrence of extreme weather events increase the potential for erosion and off-site nutrient transport, and present new challenges with respect to improving nutrient management to protect water quality. There is potential to use research to develop new approaches using machine learning and artificial intelligence, together with enhanced use efficiency fertilizers, biostimulants, and other best management practices (e.g., the use of precision farming, precision conservation, as well as ecosystem markets where reductions in nutrient losses from improved management practices can be traded) to address water quality challenges of the 21st century.

Technical Abstract: Conserving water quality is a persistent challenge in the USA that has yet to be fully resolved. The issue of erosion impacting water quality in the 1930s was significantly addressed with the creation of the act that created the SCS/NRCS and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) enacted in 1948. Additionally, universities, extension services, private consultants, conservation practitioners, farmers, ranchers, and natural resource conservation organizations have been working together with SCS/NRCS to implement conservation practices on the ground to reduce erosion and protect water quality. The mitigation of erosion’s impact on water quality has been one of the great conservation success stories of the 20th century. However, even with advances of the last forty years in applied and basic research, technology, and technology transfer related to water quality, including the development of new best management practices, precision agriculture, and precision conservation, the issue of nutrient losses from agricultural fields reaching water bodies and impacting water quality persists and still needs resolution (EPA, 2008; USGAO, 2013). Precision farming, precision conservation, precision regulation and ecosystems markets for sustainable agricultural and natural systems could potentially present some of the solutions that will be needed to address water quality issues stemming from nutrient losses to the environment. Research, education, and training of the new generation that will use these technologies to develop new approaches for nutrient management over the next three to four decades could help address this persistent water quality issue.