Talking About the Relationship Between Our Waterways and Our Food with Alyssa Charney

Agriculture is vital to our society and economy, and farming and ranching operations have a critical role to play to protect our waterways and prevent nutrient pollution. The primary sources of this pollution are animal manure and fertilizers. Both are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and in large amounts can impact water quality when runoff from precipitation or irrigation wash soil or water containing these nutrients into nearby waterways or down into the groundwater supply.

The National Water Quality Assessment shows that agricultural nonpoint source pollution, including nutrient pollution, is the leading source of water quality impacts on selected streams and rivers that were tested. In addition, this type of pollution is the third largest source of injury to lakes, the second largest source for wetlands and a major contributor to contamination of selected estuaries and ground water resources that were tested. Farming and ranching operations that contribute nonpoint source pollution typically occur because there isn't an effective conservation plan in place.

Here Alyssa Charney of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition offers some insight into the various ways farmers and ranchers are helping to protect and improve water quality (including better nutrient management) and the role that federal agriculture policy plays. Alyssa also addresses the water footprint of food and what the public can do in shaping retailers' decisions on animal welfare, local sourcing and other aspects of sustainable agriculture. Alyssa will be speaking on these issues at the upcoming River Rally 2016 conference in Mobile, Alabama.

Tell us about the link between agriculture and the health of our rivers and watersheds and the related work that your organization (NSAC) is involved in?

Farmers and ranchers play an enormous role in protecting and improving the health of our nation's rivers and watersheds. They also have a whole lot at stake when it comes to protecting the health of waterways across the country, as their production and livelihoods depend on the availability of clean water. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) works to support agricultural policies that reward producers to protect water quality (as well as protect other natural resources like the health of our soil, air, and biodiversity). NSAC works to ensure that farmers and ranchers have access to the programs and resources that can support their conservation efforts. We advocate for wide range of agricultural policies and programs that improve and protect the health of our rivers and watersheds.

What are farmers and ranchers doing to reduce agricultural runoff and water pollution?

Farmers and ranchers are protecting and improving water quality by limiting erosion, preventing runoff and keeping sediment, nutrients and other contaminants out of critical water sources. They are increasing ground cover (through the use of cover crops, conservation rotations and perennial crops) and establishing vegetative buffers to prevent the transport of waterborne contaminants downslope. Nutrient management - managing the amount, source, placement and timing of nutrient and soil amendments - also plays a major role in protecting water quality. By composting organic waste and utilizing integrated pest management, producers can improve nutrient cycling on their operations while reducing the use of toxic chemicals.

Additionally, organic and transitioning to organic producers contribute to this overall goal, because well-managed organic systems rely primarily on slow-release forms of nutrients, which reduce nutrient runoff and leaching. Improved soil structure, water infiltration and nutrient retention in organic systems also reduce the risk of water quality impairment.

Are there a few farmers and ranchers who stand out as leaders?

NSAC recently profiled four producers who have utilized the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to improve and protect natural resources on their land in agricultural production. Many CSP participants, including Miguel Otero, are utilizing intensive rotational grazing, which improves nutrient cycling to protect and improve water quality.
Others like Cornelius Joe are managing their livestock feeding areas, ensuring that manure is properly managed and doesn't negatively impact surrounding water sources. Cornelius will be joining me at River Rally 2016 to share his experience using NRCS conservation programs and the water quality benefits he has seen on his farm. Many producers are not only adopting nutrient management practices, but they're also sharing their knowledge with neighboring farmers who can then apply it to their day to day work.

What role do consumers play in addressing the impacts on rivers and watersheds?

We have already seen that consumer interest and demand can impact retailers' decisions on animal welfare, local sourcing, and much more. Consumers can stand up for and demand agricultural practices that protect the health of shared water resources. On top of that, it is equally important to remember that consumers are also voters, and there are still major policy barriers to more sustainable food and farming systems that need to be addressed. Consumers can use their collective voice and power as constituents to demand food that was produced in a way that protects clean water.

As we look towards the next federal farm bill, as well as ongoing debates around the Clean Water Act, there is absolutely a role for consumers and voters to call on their members of Congress to support the agricultural programs and policies that protect the health of our nation's waterways.

What is the water footprint of food? How can farmers reduce the amount of water needed to grow food given that irrigation uses a lot of water?

Agricultural production is inevitably linked to water consumption, but farmers and ranchers are actively seeking out innovative practices and opportunities to conserve water and improve irrigation efficiency. They are managing soil to improve infiltration, designing innovative runoff collection systems and selecting drought-tolerant crops and native forages. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program provides grants for research and outreach around sustainable agriculture, including opportunities for producers to explore new, conservation-oriented approaches to water use. Examples of SARE-funded research include conservation tillage and cover crops, water-conserving plants and rangeland drought mitigation and low-volume irrigation and water recycling.

What federal programs and resources are available to farmers to reduce water pollution (and water use) and reduce impact on rivers and watersheds?

In addition to farmer driven research focused on clean water, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a number of programs to support farmers and ranchers in their efforts to protect water quality and quantity. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are the farm bill's two largest working lands conservation programs. CSP provides technical and financial and technical assistance to actively manage existing conservation and to implement additional conservation activities, and EQIP provides financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices on working agricultural land.

Through these programs, farmers and ranchers can implement practices with clear benefits for water quality by establishing conservation cover and buffer strips, utilizing prescribed grazing, reducing the concentration of nutrients imported to the farm, as well as additional conservation activities.  Additionally, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) (which pulls its funding from CSP and EQIP) targets local resource concerns, including water quality and quantity, through partnerships between NRCS, state agencies and non-governmental organizations. Through RCPP, NRCS and its partners help producers install and maintain these key conservation practices.

What is happening on the policy front to enhance the availability of these resources to support producers in their water stewardship efforts? Are there any policy changes that are undermining/limiting these resources?

Even though it feels like we just finished up work on the 2014 Farm Bill, NSAC is already looking towards the next farm bill where we'll be looking for major wins on conservation, crop insurance and more - all with major implications for water quality. Right now we're in the middle of the annual appropriations process, through which Congress funds the basic functions of the federal government.
Despite the fact that conservation programs like CSP and EQIP receive mandatory funding through the farm bill, received full funding through the President's budget this year and shouldn't be subject to the annual appropriations process, appropriators continue to target funding for these programs year after year. NSAC continues to urge members of Congress to oppose these cuts that have detrimental impacts on water quality and the protection of other natural resources.

The EPA's clean water rule does not change any of the existing clean water act exemptions for farmers - why the opposition from big ag groups?

Despite the fact that final rule defining "waters of the United States" reflected significant outreach and engagement with the agricultural community, opponents of the rule have been stirring the anti-regulatory sentiment in an effort to stall further protection of our nation's waterways. The final rule (which is up against legal challenges and on hold nationwide) would provide much needed clarity for farmers and ranchers regarding which waters on their land are subject to permitting requirements.

NSAC and our member organizations worked hard to educate members of Congress and the agricultural community on the importance of this rule, and though we had specific amendments to propose (many of which were accepted), we stood firmly with the Administration is support of its passage. Congress continues to attempt to further block this rule through backdoor amendments in the annual appropriations process, but NSAC firmly believes that it should be left up to the courts to ensure that the final rule can be implemented to provide critical protections for clean water, public health, and more sustainable agriculture.

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