Farm Bill Conservation Programs Must Do More to Protect California Water

Report says USDA must invest more in highly effective and lower-cost farming practices to clean up nutrient and pesticide pollution
(202) 667-6982
For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Washington, D.C. ­-- Hundreds of millions of conservation dollars in the federal farm bill should be used far more effectively to address widespread water pollution problems in California, according to a new analysis released today by Environmental Working Group (EWG).

“Too many pollutants, including fertilizers, pesticides and pathogens, are damaging California’s waterways, poisoning fish and threatening drinking water for many communities,” said Kari Hamerschlag, EWG Senior Analyst and author of the report. “This analysis shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. By redirecting resources in the right way, taxpayer dollars can do far more to protect public health and curb nutrient and pesticide pollution."

EWG analyzed two conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) -- the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP). Together these programs provided $485 million in financial and technical support between 2009 and 2012 to help California farmers and ranchers reduce water pollution, build healthier soil, protect air quality, enhance wildlife habitat, and improve water conservation.

However, EWG’s analysis showed that these programs are primarily addressing California’s water quality issues by financing structural improvements such as irrigation systems and animal waste infrastructure, while spending too little on less costly and highly effective farming practices that would generate far greater benefits. In fact, 82 percent of the funding for practices that address nutrient pollution helped pay for structures or equipment – including half for purchasing and installing irrigation equipment and another quarter for structures to manage and treat the millions of tons of animal waste generated by farms, the report found.

“We are allocating too much money for expensive cement structures and high-priced irrigation equipment instead of investing in a less expensive approach that could help more farmers reduce nutrient contamination and achieve greater ecological benefits,” said Hamerschlag. "It’s critical that more of our scarce resources be targeted toward proven measures that not only reduce water pollution but also enhance soil and plant health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve water, promote biodiversity and help farmers adapt to climate change.”

According to a key NRCS technical document, knowledge-based and vegetative practices – such as nutrient management, conservation tillage, cover cropping and filter strips -- are more effective. Yet the report found that only 11 percent of conservation funding to reduce nutrient pollution goes towards these kinds of efforts.

The report also questions the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize large animal feeding operations that cause serious harm to water and air, public health and animal welfare, and it calls on Congress to end these subsidies.

Because EQIP and AWEP are voluntary programs, USDA cannot force farmers to choose particular practices, but the report notes that recently adopted regional regulations will push farmers to adopt more of these high value practices. EWG's report makes a number of significant recommendations to give farmers greater incentives to improve water quality and the long-term environmental performance of California agriculture.

The recommendations include:

  • Revising ranking systems for funding applications to give priority to farmers who implement management and vegetative practices
  • Modifying cost-share rates and payments for conservation practices
  • Increasing focus on low-cost, high-impact practices in highly polluted watersheds
  • Increasing outreach, training and promotion of good land management practices
  • Ensuring that irrigation investments lead to significant water savings and minimize depletion of groundwater resources

Even without new legislation, the report points out how NRCS can make policy changes at the federal level to increase the effectiveness of conservation programs in addressing nutrient and pesticide pollution.

Key Issues: