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EPA and USDA seeking ways to further cut nutrient runoff


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. EPA and USDA recently issued a joint letter to local entities in an attempt to reinvigorate efforts to reduce runoff in waterways.

The letter, signed by David P. Ross, assistant administrator in the EPA Office of Water Quality, and USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey, acknowledged the work of states, tribes and stakeholders for the significant progress made in reducing excess nutrients in some watersheds.

“Nationally available water quality data, however, indicate that nutrient pollution continues to be widespread,” it stated. “To better address this challenge, the EPA and USDA are working to identify opportunities for meaningful reductions in nonpoint nutrient losses and improvements in water quality. These opportunities will require using all the tools available to address excess nutrients in watersheds, including non-regulatory and market-based programs.”

Laura Campbell, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s (MFB) Ag Ecology Department, said nutrient management and protecting water quality is one of the key issues the state’s largest farm organization focuses upon.

 “My understanding is that the intent behind market-based efforts is asking states to share what are innovative ways to put practices or programs out on the ground to help get water quality improvement, either before you have to get to a TMDL (total maximum daily load) or to get those waters that are already under some sort of oversight to actually reach their improvement goals,” she said.

Several initiatives have proven effective, and MFB continues to work with collaborators to develop new opportunities.  “We are partners to the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which is Michigan’s premiere voluntary certification program which encourages good stewardship. We participate heavily in that and encourage all of our members to work through the MAEAP steps as well.”

Campbell said MFB also partners with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and USDA on farm bill conservation programs.

“We work with conservation districts and nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy on local core initiatives and water shed specific initiatives to try to encourage good nutrient management practices and to try new things,” she added.

She explained the collaborators are actively “looking at how else can we help farmers get to nutrient management goals,” such as a partnership with drain commissions that may offer assessment discounts to landowners using good conservation practices.

Another consideration is payments for performance for producers in which if a farmer takes a particular action to reduce sediments or nutrients from entering a waterway, a payment to them would be calculated based on the amount of reduction.

During a recent meeting with EPA, Campbell said an example given of a market-based approach is a water quality trading program. “If you’re a factory, or something like that, you have a permit limit – for how much nutrient or anything EPA would classify as a pollutant – of how much you can discharge into a waterway.

“If it would cost you $500 million to make the improvements on your site to get to that permit goal, but it would cost you half that to incentivize all of the farmers in your watershed to make the changes that would also get to that goal, they want people to investigate whether ideas like that are feasible at the local scale,” she noted.

“The idea is where you have companies and landowners maybe making these more private or small-scale transactions that can get you to a water quality goal in an roundabout way … to explore how can we figure out a way to get there that’s a win for everybody.”

Campbell said some challenges farmers face may be financially driven, as well as weather-related. “Some of the problems are things that are really out of a farmer’s control. When you have unpredictable weather or weather trends and climate trends that are changing, these factors can make it difficult to manage nutrients.

“Say we’re getting more rain in the springtime than we ever used to before resulting in more water runoff, or we’re not getting as consistently cold of winters, so it changes the dynamic in the lake with how long algae survives. Those kinds of incidents can really change from year to year what ends up being a downstream impact from a farmer’s nutrient management practices.

“You can put all of the edge-of-field stuff in that you want and all of the power control boxes, but if your field is under a foot of water, it doesn’t matter. That’s the No. 1 challenge and the one that we really can’t do anything about,” she said.

“Some of the other barriers are that putting these processes in place is, a lot of times, expensive. There are cost-share programs out there to help farmers with offsetting some of the cost, but frequently they’re not always accessible or user-friendly for farmers to get involved in.”

Together, the EPA and USDA are encouraging innovative solutions and are willing to meet one-on-one with state authorities, as well as coordinating regional meetings between states and stakeholders.