Water: Polluted Runoff
The United States has more than 330 million acres of agricultural land that produce an abundant supply of food and other products. American agriculture is noted worldwide for its high productivity, quality and efficiency in delivering goods to the consumer. When improperly managed, however, activities from working farms and ranches can affect water quality.
In the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, states reported that agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution was the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and lakes, the second largest source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of surveyed estuaries and ground water.
Agricultural activities that cause NPS pollution include poorly located or managed animal feeding operations; overgrazing; plowing too often or at the wrong time; and improper, excessive or poorly timed application of pesticides, irrigation water and fertilizer.
National Water Quality Initiative
In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI), in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state water quality agencies, to reduce nonpoint sources of nutrients, sediment, and pathogens related to agriculture in small high-priority watersheds in each state. These priority watersheds have been selected by NRCS State Conservationists in consultation with state water quality agencies and NRCS State Technical Committees where targeted on-farm conservation investments will deliver the greatest water quality benefits. NWQI provides a means to accelerate voluntary, private lands conservation investments to improve water quality with dedicated financial assistance through NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Clean Water Act Section 319 or other funds to focus state water quality monitoring and assessment efforts where they are most needed to track change. A key part of the NWQI targeting effort includes the implementation of conservation systems that avoid, trap, and control run-off in these high-priority watersheds.
Water quality monitoring plays a critical role in the NWQI. State water quality agencies are assessing progress through in-stream water quality monitoring in at least one watershed per state using Clean Water Act Section 319 or other funds. The objective of NWQI instream monitoring is to assess whether water quality and/or biological condition related to nutrients, sediments, or livestock-related pathogens has changed in the watershed, and if so whether this can be associated with agricultural conservation practices. Through EQIP, edge-of-field monitoring projects are taking place in a select number of NWQI watersheds in order to assess the impact of conservation practices at the field scale, calibrate USDA water quality models, and inform adaptive management.
- EPA-State Approach to Instream Monitoring for NWQI - April 30, 2013. This webinar gives an overview of the primary goals and objectives of NWQI monitoring, explains some of the challenges associated with this type of monitoring, and provides an explanation of the proposed approach and schedule for NWQI monitoring.
- Water Quality Monitoring for National Water Quality Initiative Watershed Projects - July 18, 2013. This webinar gives an update on NWQI monitoring and the proposed schedule and provides technical background information on water quality monitoring to support NWQI project design efforts.
- NRCS-EPA National Water Quality Initiative: Water Quality Monitoring and Data Sharing Agreements - September 11, 2013 . This webinar provides an overview of the NWQI, describes the role of agencies including those of NRCS Headquarters, NRCS state offices, EPA, and state offices, an introduction to NWQI instream monitoring and NRCS edge-of-field monitoring, and data sharing and confidentiality considerations.
- Watershed Academy Webinar: USDA's National Water Quality Initiative, July 10, 2012. Go to Webcast Archives to view the archived webinar and to learn more about the NWQI.
- USDA NRCS NWQI website
- EPA's FY14 Guidance Memorandum on NWQI Monitoring (PDF) (5 pp, 626K, About PDF) which summarizes information and expectations for monitoring activity conducted by state agencies in support of the NWQI.
- NRCS' NWQI FY 14 Guidance for State Conservationists
- Watershed Implementation and Innovation Network
Fact Sheets and Reports
- Protecting Water Quality from Agricultural Runoff, March 2005, EPA 841-F-05-001
This is a fact sheet about how agricultural runoff affects water quality.
- How to Build Better Agricultural Conservation Programs to Protect Water Quality: The National Institute of Food and Agriculture- Conservation Effects Assessment Project Experience (2012) This book provides a synthesis of 13 projects designed to evaluate the effects of conservation practices on spatial and temporal trends in water quality at the watershed scale. The lessons learned from this synthesis strengthen the knowledge base for evaluating the impacts of conservation practices on water quality, improving management of agricultural landscapes for improved water resource outcomes, and informing conservation policy.
- Conservation Buffers to Reduce Pesticide Losses (PDF) (25 pp, 1.2MB, About PDF)
This document summarizes recent research investigating the ability of conservation buffers to trap and degrade pesticides carried in field runoff. It is the result of a joint effort between the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), National Water and Climate Center and EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
Guidance Documents and Manuals
- National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture, July 2003
Technical guidance and reference document for use by State, local, and tribal managers in the implementation of nonpoint source pollution management programs. It contains information on the best available, economically achievable means of reducing pollution of surface and ground water from agriculture.
- Chesapeake Bay Federal Land Management Guidance – Agriculture, May 2010
This guidance presents the implementation measures component of Nutrient Management Plans that would maximize nutrient reductions by agriculture. Three types of practices are necessary in agricultural production to control nutrients and sediments. These three types avoid, control, and trap pollutants (ACT), and practices that suit each should be implemented in agricultural production.
- Techniques for Tracking, Evaluating, and Reporting the Implementation of Nonpoint Source Control Measures - Agriculture
This guidance from 1997 was written to help state, regional and local environmental professionals track the implementation of best management practices (BMPs) used to control agricultural nonpoint source pollution.
- Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs)
This page includes general information on AFOs, links to the USDA-EPA Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations and the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation proposed rule, and includes guidance documents and compliance guides for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Practice Standards
NRCS conservation practice standards provide guidance for applying conservation technology on the land and set the minimum acceptable level for application of the technology. This site lists current national conservation practices in alphabetical order, with links to the practice standards, conservation practice information sheets and Conservation Practice Physical Effects (CPPE) worksheets (when available).
- 2008 NRCS Farm Bill Conservation Program
The conservation provisions in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 Farm Bill) will provide conservation opportunities for farmers and ranchers for years to come. These provisions build on the conservation gains made by farmers and ranchers through the 1985, 1996 and 2002 Farm Bills. They simplify existing programs and create new programs to address high priority environmental goals.
Information Resources and Centers
Learn about the water quality benefits of cover crops and organizations involved in expanding cover crop implementation.
- EPA's National Agriculture Compliance Assistance Center
The National Agriculture Compliance Assistance Center is the "first stop" for information about environmental requirements that affect the agricultural community.
- Water Quality Information Center at the National Agricultural Library
From the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the WQIC provides electronic access to information on water quality and agriculture. The center collects, organizes and communicates the scientific findings, educational methodologies and public policy issues related to water quality and agriculture.
- Conservation Technology Information Center (Core4 Conservation)
The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) is a national, public-private partnership with a mission to provide reliable, profitable solutions to improve the relationship between agriculture and the environment. The center provides information on agricultural conservation issues.
- North Carolina State University (NCSU) Water Quality Group
The North Carolina State University (NCSU) Water Quality Group is a multidisciplinary team that analyzes and conducts natural resource management programs with an emphasis on nonpoint source (NPS) pollution policy, assessment and control technologies.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Photo Gallery
Approximately 1,500 conservation-related images are available for download from this site. The photos are organized in a database that allows users to search 54 categories from 30 States using key categories like buffers, conservation tillage, water quality and wildlife.
- Farm*A*Syst (from the University of Wisconsin Extension Office)
Farm*A*Syst is a partnership between government agencies and private business that enables you to prevent pollution on farms, ranches and in homes using confidential environmental assessments.
- USDA's National Water Quality Programs
From the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.