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GAO: After Decades and Billions Spent On Voluntary Measures Agriculture Pollution Remains Unchecked

(202) 667-6982
For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Washington, D.C. – A new Government Accountability Office report recommends that Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency should toughen the federal Clean Water Act’s approach to curbing pollution from agricultural runoff.

“The report should finally put to bed the notion that voluntary programs alone are going to fix the nation’s water quality problems,” Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources, said in a statement today.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that about 80 percent of the watersheds where states have set targets for reducing farm-related pollution had not markedly improved water quality. Most of these areas had no implementation plans, and even if they had a plan they had no funding for enforcement, according to report.

Cox said the report highlights the fatal flaw in the Clean Water Act—there is no authority to compel agricultural operations to take any action to reduce pollution from their crop fields. In contrast, water quality was getting better in watersheds where most of the pollution was coming from sources regulated under the law.

“The result is that taxpayers have spent billions of dollars on voluntary federal programs to help farmers implement conservation measures to curb polluted runoff,” said Cox. “Yet, according to the GAO, they have not gotten enough clean water for their money.”

The findings of the report amount to compelling evidence that polluted farm runoff is the reason the Clean Water Act is not delivering on its promise, Cox added.

“They prove that the voluntary approach to dealing with agriculture pollution has failed and that regulations are needed to get the nation on the right track. In fact, common-sense measures to restrict the most abusive practices that cause this pollution are the only way to meet the nation’s water quality goals.”

According to the report, EPA program managers told GAO investigators that lack of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was "the biggest single information gap that limits the tracking” of pollution from farm runoff. The gap is a result of the privacy provisions of the federal farm bill.

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