EPA Study Points to Ag for Pervasive River Pollution

A March 26 report by the Environmental Protection Agency has found that 55 percent of the nation’s stream and river miles are in poor condition, mainly because of industrial agriculture.

In the intensely-farmed ecoregion that corresponds with the corn belt where 69 percent of the land is devoted to crops, EPA concluded that 54 percent of the streams and rivers are polluted with phosphorus and 71 percent with nitrogen most of which comes from vast acreages of corn and soybeans.  Some 72 percent of the waterways in this region suffer from damage to protective stream bank vegetation.   

These results echo the findings of a 2012 report called Murky Waters by the Environmental Working Group.  EWG’s analysis of Iowa state water quality data collected between 1999 and 2011 found that 92 percent of stream segments rated “poor” or “very poor” for nitrogen, and that 59 percent of them rated “poor” or “very poor” for phosphorus.   

EWG found that nitrogen was the worst pollutant in 55 percent of the water quality samples collected over the past 12 years and phosphorus was the worst in another 30 percent.

Previous studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found that industrial agriculture is the source of more than 70 percent of the pollution in the Mississippi River basin, which extends from the Appalachians to the Rockies. 

The various research projects point to a common conclusion: 40 years of strictly voluntary programs have barely made a dent in farm pollution.  What is needed is a new approach, combining mandatory pollution standards and more precisely targeted voluntary conservation programs.   Many farmers are excellent stewards of land and water, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture should expect all landowners to implement basic conservation practices to prevent pollution in return for generous crop and insurance subsidies.

State governments should take aggressive action to restrict the handful of egregious farming practices that cause a disproportionate share of the pollution that gives a black eye to all farmers. With that basic foundation in place, voluntary programs should help landowners work together to heal the rivers and streams in their localities.

The EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment  is based on water samples from 1,924 river and stream sites across the country. The purposes of this uniform national study are to determine the biological health of the nation’s waterways, identify what pollutants and other factors are key problems, measure water quality trends, and help determine how best to protect and restore waterways.  As Pulitzer Prize winning outdoors columnist Bob Marshal notes in Field and Stream, “Since the field work in this survey was completed in 2009, it’s safe to say the conditions of most of these troubled waters has worsened.”

The question is, what is Congress going to do about it? 

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