Voluntary Conservation Practices Are a Fool’s Errand

AMES, Iowa – A new EWG report reveals the fatal flaw in the voluntary approach to cutting pollution from farm fields: Farmers who voluntarily start pollution control practices can just as easily stop.

“Touting the acres of new conservation practices farmers adopt without accounting for losses is meaningless and misleading,” said Soren Rundquist, EWG director of landscape analysis. “It’s like trying to balance your check book by looking only at deposits and ignoring withdrawals.” 

The report, titled “Fooling Ourselves: Voluntary Programs Fail to Clean Up Dirty Water,” helps to explain why Iowa’s water quality is still poor despite the $3 billion spent on voluntary federal programs in the state since 2005. Across the nation, tens of billions of dollars have been spent with similar results.

“We are fooling ourselves by clinging to the hope that voluntary conservation measures alone will clean up Iowa’s water,” said Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president, “It's time to require landowners to keep in place simple but effective practices to cut farm pollution. Throwing more federal and state dollars at the failed voluntary approach promoted by agricultural interests will get us nowhere.”

EWG used aerial imagery in eight key Iowa watersheds to track the simple but important practice of maintaining 75-foot wide buffer zones of vegetative cover between crop fields and waterways in order to stem the farm pollution that causes most of the state’s water problems.

The imaging showed that between 2011 and 2014, landowners in the eight watersheds planted 45 new acres of grass to protect stream banks and filter out fertilizers, manure and farm chemicals that flow off crop fields. At the 75-foot width, that added up to protecting 11 miles of waterway.

But other landowners plowed up 119 acres of existing stream buffers. The result was a net loss of 74 acres of grass buffer zones, stripping or shrinking the pollution-preventing buffers along at least 22 miles of shoreline – twice as much as was added elsewhere. (In some cases, buffer zones may have been narrowed but not completely eliminated.)

More than 80 percent of the lost stream buffer acreage had been enrolled in a program that paid farmers to keep the grass strips in place.

"EWG’s new report is timely and important. While the findings are upsetting, they are not surprising at all,” said Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works’ CEO and General Manager.  “Agricultural interest groups, state and federal officials routinely argue that voluntary conservation practices are the best way to clean up the water.  The public health of over 500,000 central Iowans who rely on the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers for drinking water simply cannot wait for voluntary practices to catch up with the reality of degrading Iowa environmental protection.”

As the “basic standard of care” that landowners should meet, EWG recommends that growers:

1.      keep 50 feet of vegetation between cropland and waterways to filter polluted runoff.

2.    heal or prevent temporary gullies that become direct pipelines delivering polluted runoff to streams and lakes.

3.    control livestock’s access to streams to prevent the battering that causes stream banks to collapse and foul waterways.

4.    not spread manure on frozen or snow-covered fields.

Famers who experience serious economic hardship in meeting this standard should get financial help from the government, and well-funded voluntary programs should be created to assist growers willing to do more.

“We should argue about whether these are the right standards,” said Cox, “but there have to be standards and they can’t be optional.”

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