Imagine if highway regulations were voluntary. It’s true that most of us would still drive the speed limit and stop at stop signs, but some people, maybe 10-20 percent, wouldn’t. You can just imagine what would happen to traffic safety.
According to one study, this seems to be just what is happening in the unregulated world of land use (nonpoint source) pollution. While the 1972 federal Clean Water Act has cleaned up much of the worst pollution in our rivers, lakes, and streams, it did this by regulating pipe source (point source) pollution, like wastewater coming out of a factory or a city wastewater treatment plant. The Clean Water Act specifically excludes all farming activities that do not produce a point source discharge of pollutants. The result is that while there has been a significant reduction of factory chemicals and less city sewage in our waterways, we have about the same amount, or increasing contamination coming from runoff in the form of fertilizers and eroded sediment.
While states and the Federal government have spent billions of dollars and used voluntary incentives over the past 40 years to encourage farmers and landowners to reduce the pollution coming off of their land, those efforts don’t seem to be cleaning up waterways in agricultural regions like Minnesota and Iowa. In fact, one study by the Environmental Working Group found that Iowa rivers have become even more polluted in recent years. This seems confusing, since most farmers are taking steps to protect soil and water resources like installing terraces and grassed waterways to reduce erosion. So why don’t we see water quality improvements?
According to a study by Marc Ribaudo, a senior economist for the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and published in Choices Magazine in May, voluntary conservation has several limitations that could prevent it from ever reducing rural pollution in the nation’s rivers.
Few Acres Provide Most of the Pollution
By its very nature, voluntary conservation programs only reach farmers who are inclined to do a good job of protecting their soil and water resources. These voluntary best management practices (BMPs) like grassed waterways, contour farming, terraces, and other practices can help reduce pollution on the local level. But if just a handful of neighbors choose not to use BMPs, the pollution from this small group of producers could overwhelm the pollution reductions from all the other farmers in the watershed. Ribaudo calls this “disproportionality,” but most of us know it as the 80/20 rule. In this case, it says that 80 percent of the pollution in a watershed could be coming from a little as 20 percent of the acreage. A great deal of research seems to support this assertion. A 2011 USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service study found that 80 percent of the acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed lost fewer than 40 pounds/acre of nitrogen, a very low loss rate. But the remaining 20 percent of the acres lost up to 300 pounds/acre of nitrogen. Other studies in Midwestern states have shown that the majority of eroded soils coming off a small portion of the watershed landscape.
Zumbro River Pollution
According to Adam King, District Manager with the Dodge County Soil and Water Conservation District, some of these national trends show up in the Zumbro River.
“Bacteria in the Zumbro is mostly from feedlots,” said King. “A small number of feedlots can contribute the majority of bacteria to a stream. Many of those 20% know there’s an issue and they don’t know how to fix it, or who to go to with help on how to fix it. That is where the Soil and Water Conservation Districts can really step in and provide that assistance.”
King points out that Minnesota is probably doing better than other states in addressing river pollution issues because of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment funding approved by voters in 2008.
“I’ve seen agencies use Clean Water Funds to target those areas that have the worst pollution problems, or those areas that are on the brink or just over the brink of being impaired. This funding encourages farmers to install specific best management practices to try to achieve measurable results.”
King acknowledges that voluntary practices can’t solve every river pollution problem. “There will always be those that won’t be told what to do or how to do it. So in those cases when voluntary approaches haven’t worked, Minnesota has also gone with regulations. State and federal agencies issue permits for feedlots and regulate what can and cannot be done in a livestock operation. Most recently the state passed the buffer law requiring an average of 50 feet (minimum of 30 feet) of vegetated buffer along waterways, and a 16.5-foot vegetated buffer along public drainage ditches.”
As conservation and river groups call for more and stronger clean water regulations and agricultural groups call for states to stick with the 50-year strategy of mostly voluntary guidelines for rural landowners, the clock is ticking. If clean rivers and lakes are important to Minnesotans, we may need to find new strategies to achieve them.