Nutrient Pollution

The Coalition’s Nutrient Pollution Work Group works to reduce harmful algal blooms, toxins in drinking water supplies, and “dead zones” by reducing inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus from the most significant pollution sources by advancing policies and community-influenced solutions that address the harmful waterway impacts of agricultural pollution, inadequate sewage treatment, and urban runoff.

 

Advancing Clean Water through the Farm Bill

 

The next Farm Bill should further efforts to reduce the threat nutrient pollution poses to clean water and ensure farmers and ranchers have the tools they need to be leading stewards of our shared water resources.

Conservation systems can go a long way toward protecting our water sources, and Farm Bill conservation programs offer an opportunity to give producers the financial and technical assistance needed to put those systems in place. Cover crops, conservation tillage, buffer strips, manure and livestock management, wetland restoration, integrated pest management and conservation crop rotations are just a few examples of water-friendly practices that can help protect water at the source, usually at a lower cost than that incurred by downstream communities to make polluted water safe for drinking, commerce, wildlife, and recreation. Many of these practices have co-benefits to soil health, public health, and more. They can stimulate rural economies and increase the resilience of supply chains.

For the next Farm Bill, our priorities are:

 

Prioritize Water Quality Outcomes: Considering the huge role USDA plays in many of our diverse watersheds plagued by nutrient pollution issues across the country, we need their programs to operationalize water quality as a key part of the model of success. Measuring outcomes instead of just acres of practices allows for more cost-efficient programs and greater environmental benefits in the form of cleaner aquatic resources and more opportunities for recreation. One way to do this is the creation of a Clean Water Outcomes Matching Program within the Regional Conservation Partnership Program that would provide incentive to states to adopt outcomes-based water quality funds. Integrating an outcomes approach into current USDA conservation programs will lead to real watershed improvements as farmers and ranchers measure tangible outcomes that will inform the effectiveness of the best management practices already in place.

Modernize Crop Insurance: The Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) should be modernized to protect water quality and promote more diverse and sustainable cropping systems. This shift could help prepare farmers for the impacts of a changing climate, like drought and flooding, which in turn drive up costs of the program at taxpayers’ expense. We support improvements to the crop insurance program that can transition the FCIP into a real risk management strategy in a changing climate, including a good stewardship discount for farmers who use good soil health practices, expansion of Sodsaver to protect grasslands in all states, robust support for the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection program, and increased technical assistance for and stronger enforcement of conservation compliance to protect wetlands and improve conservation on highly-erodible land.

Limit CAFO Funding: While many family farmers and ranchers aspire to be stewards of the environment, much of the pollution in our waterways comes from large industrial animal operations–many of which are foreign-owned–that in no way resemble traditional farms or ranches. These operations recklessly release vast volumes of waste that pollute our air and waterways and cause sickness and sometimes death in surrounding communities, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color. We recommend removing the 50% EQIP designation for livestock, as much of these funds currently go to industrial animal operations and subsidize environmentally harmful practices. Federal funding should instead be redirected towards a variety of regenerative, soil-, water-quality-, equity-, and climate- based farm and ranch practices that protect water, air, soil, and community health.


Double Conservation Spending: Farm Bill conservation programs are the largest source of conservation funding on private lands, yet demand for conservation on 13.8 million acres goes unmet because of inadequate funding every year. For major working lands programs like CSP and EQIP, this means up to 75% of applications have gone unfunded in recent years. To meet this need, the next Farm Bill should double conservation funding to improve water quality through reduced soil erosion, reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to waterways, and to improve water efficiency in dry climates, as well as providing co-benefits for climate mitigation, climate resilience, soil health, and wildlife habitat.

Curious about what’s in the Farm Bill related to water quality issues? The Nutrient Pollution Work Group led a Farm Bill 101 webinar in 2022:

Preventing Polluted Runoff That Causes Toxic Algae Outbreaks

Toxic algae outbreaks are more than just smelly and unsightly – they are dangerous. They can harm people, wildlife, livestock and pets. Some outbreaks are a big threat to public health and drinking water supplies. A huge toxic algae outbreak in Lake Erie in 2014 left the entire city of Toledo, 500 thousand people, without safe drinking water. Algae outbreaks are caused by many factors – but one of the biggest is runoff contaminated with fertilizer and manure from agricultural operations and farms.

Clean Water for All is working to reduce agricultural runoff by putting a spotlight on manure pollution caused by industrial animal agriculture, working with Congress and government agencies to improve federal policy on nonpoint source pollution, and increasing funding and improving effectiveness of nonpoint source programs, including Farm Bill conservation programs.

 

Water Pollution from Industrial Animal Agriculture

The impact of agribusiness pollution on our nation’s waterways is severe. Nutrient pollution (excess nitrogen and phosphorus) arising from agriculture and agricultural processing has contaminated drinking water, caused huge dead zones in coastal waters and turned large portions of rivers, lakes and streams across the country into a green soup of toxic algae.  Policy solutions to address nutrient pollution have neglected the impacts of industrial, confined animal agriculture to the detriment of our waterways. There are three interrelated operations of industrial agribusiness contributing to nutrient pollution: 

  1. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (known as CAFOs) producing huge volumes of manure; 
  2. Cropland (often growing grain for livestock), where chemical fertilizer and manure from industrial livestock operations runs off into nearby waterways; and 
  3. Slaughterhouses where livestock are processed also dump pollution directly into our waters.

Factsheets