By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agriculture and environmental interests may agree that farmers need to do more to cut back nutrient runoff, but the path toward achieving those cutbacks continues to be a point of contention.
Are water quality benefits more attainable through government mandating the use of a set of conservation measures, or is the state of Iowa's example of a voluntary push toward adoption of practices statewide the answer?
A group of panelists at the North American Agriculture Journalists annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Monday agreed there is no easy way to track the progress agriculture is making or not making toward reducing nutrient runoff.
If conservation measures are mandated through government regulation, how would that work?
"What we need is a basic standard of care landowners should be expected to have in place -- mandatory, not optional," said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for the Environmental Working Group. "There needs to be a list of simple conservation practices that deals with the problems on the landscape. Then to what extent if any should farmers be compensated?"
One of the problems seen on the Iowa landscape in particular, he said, is satellite imagery has revealed that in the past 35 years or so, many conservation practices including buffers that were once in place in 1980 have since disappeared in some counties. What is lacking is on-the-ground intelligence as to what factors may have driven the on-and-off nature of those practices.
Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said there isn't enough good satellite data available to determine what is going on.
The practices "wink in and out because the images are available at different times," he said.
"The problem with mandatory conservation is basically you're asking the federal government to come in and mandate a land use. Be careful of how you mandate things on the landscape."
Bill Wilber, chief of the National Water Quality Assessment Program for the U.S. Geological Survey, said nitrate loading to the Gulf of Mexico has increased between 1980 and 2010 by about 14% despite efforts in the basin to reduce nutrient runoff.
He said nutrient runoff from fields to groundwater, then into streams and waterways is an increasing concern. Wilber said nutrient flow through groundwater may increase as a result of nutrient applications from years ago. As a result, the full effect of today's management practices may not be measurable in rivers for years to come.
The amount of land in agriculture fell from about 380 million acres in 1960 to about 350 million acres today, Parrish said. There is the same number of pigs and beef cows in production today as in 1960, and there are about half as many dairy cows as there were in 1960.
"We're using less (nutrients) and we're seeing significant reduction in the amount of soil erosion on the landscape," he said. "I think now we're starting to see features reach the ends of their useful life."
Cox said one of the most effective ways to spread the implementation of conservation practices is for farmers to see them successfully working on neighbors' farms. He said producers in a given region have to be "intimately involved in making decisions on conservation."
If producers are mandated to use a given set of practices, Cox said, there are a number of practices that have proven to be successful. That includes ensuring there are grass waterways in place to prevent nutrients running from croplands into waterways. Contour grass strips are another way to "heal" waterways.
In addition, Cox said farmers should be asked to manage the access of cattle to streams and not to apply manure on frozen and saturated ground, such as is required in a new bill signed into law in Ohio to address nutrient runoff in the western basin of Lake Erie. "It is a huge problem," he said.
When it comes to reducing nutrient runoff in Ohio, Parrish said the state's new law is somewhat innovative in that it requires farmers to have continuing education and ongoing certification on how and when to apply manure to croplands.
"We think that maybe that's the first step farmers need," he said. "That would lead to more innovation ... It has to be a unified effort."
Parrish said the Iowa example of farmers and water districts working together on a variety of conservation efforts may be a model that would be effective across the country.
Cox said, "If we really want conservation to work, it has to be more widespread adoption ... After 31 years, on net, are we doing better than we were? I think the answer is no, we're not doing better.
"These issues are starting to hit thresholds. They are starting to get more attention ... There is a growing frustration in the voluntary approach. Voluntary versus regulatory -- we're past that. Most of the conversation is how agriculture should be regulated."
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN
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