Water Quality and the Role of Agriculture - Kentucky Farm Bureau

Water Quality and the Role of Agriculture

Posted on Mar 21, 2023

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For decades, environmental experts, government agencies, and concerned citizen groups have been hearing about and monitoring an area in the Gulf of Mexico that has come to be known as the Hypoxia Zone.

It is an area in the Gulf fed mainly by the Mississippi River that no longer supports aquatic life. During these years of monitoring, most of the blame for this dead area has been placed on nutrient runoff into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf.

Unfortunately for the agriculture industry, farming operations have been a target for being a major contributor to this zone.

But recent monitoring efforts have shown a decrease in the total hypoxia area, and farm groups are stepping forward to recognize the efforts farm families have been making and are involved in, to reduce chemical applications on their crops while maintaining the production levels necessary to feed this country and much of the world.   

Sharon Furches, co-owner of Furches Farms in Murray, Kentucky, second vice president of Kentucky Farm Bureau, and a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Farm, Ranch, and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee, has been involved in efforts to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint both from the farm and the policy perspective for years.

She said while the ag industry recognizes it has a role in contributing to a certain amount of nutrient levels that make their way to regional waterways, Furches has seen firsthand the positive efforts farm families have been making for decades as good stewards of their natural resources. 

“For those old enough to remember the early days of what became known as no-till production, it was new and different and something we as producers had to learn about and ultimately embrace as we looked for ways to reduce erosion, one of the main culprits of water contamination,” Furches said. “Now, it is the standard by which we produce most of our crops and has been in use for decades.”

Furches added that no-till production is just one example of many of the efforts that have been made to lessen agriculture’s footprint on the environment.

“Through years of research and out of the sheer necessity to reduce input costs on the farm, producers are growing crops and raising livestock in a more environmentally friendly way than ever before,” she said.

Courtney Briggs serves as Senior Director of Government Affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation. She said the agriculture industry has been key in helping to reduce nutrient levels in the Mississippi River Basin.

“Agriculture has played a pivotal role in reducing nutrient runoff, and unfortunately, I don't think agriculture gets the credit that we deserve," she said. "Farmers throughout the country have implemented conservation practices voluntarily of their own volition and out of their own pocketbook."

Briggs said some of those practices include conservation tillage, the introduction of cover crops, and using buffer or filter strips on their property to make advancements in water quality.

In addition to the physical practices being incorporated by farmers is collaboration at all levels and by states and agencies to reach obtainable goals in nutrient reduction efforts.

“It's incredibly important for states to work together,” she said. “We can't stay in our silos working individually and expect there to be improvements in the water quality, and what I've been really pleased about is at the national level, the EPA has created the Hypoxia Task Force, and that's been an opportunity for states inside the Mississippi River Basin to come together to learn from each other and to have a safe space to share information.”

Angie Crain, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey, serves as the water quality specialist in the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Water Science Center. She said water quality in the Mississippi River certainly faces unique challenges as a water body with a shared border among 10 states.

“It's vital that states be proactive and cooperative in their conservation and water quality programs to avoid the Mississippi River being an orphan water body, at least from a water quality monitoring and assessment perspective,” she said. “Protecting and improving our water quality is essential for those communities throughout the Mississippi River Basin. So, states need and should continue to work together regarding their conservation practices for healthy streams throughout the Mississippi River Basin.”

USGS monitors nutrients, specifically nitrates and phosphates, which dominate the conversation from a runoff perspective, and while Crain said specific numbers could not be placed on how much of the Hypoxia Zone reduction could be attributed directly to agricultural practices, actions in the ag community have played an important role in reducing nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin streams.

"There are a couple of ways that is being accomplished; first, commitment to soil and water conservation from producers  has been a critical part of the development of nutrient reduction strategies by states as many producers have enhanced their management of fertilizers by practicing precision farming techniques,” she said. “The second thing is, agricultural programs like federal, state, and local entities involving cost share and technical assistance continue to help create greater adoption of conservation practices. These programs play a vital role in helping producers manage their nutrients in order to protect water quality, but also gaining production efficiencies.”

In addition to the measures being taken directly on the farm, state Farm Bureaus and AFBF have been instrumental in their national advocacy efforts to speak up for the agriculture industry and farm families across the country.

 “AFBF has been at the table for this entire conversation, and we engage frequently with EPA,” Briggs said. “For instance, one of the recent actions by EPA was to release their nutrient framework memorandum, and AFBF was integral in making sure that prescriptive—and frankly unattainable—numeric nutrient criteria were not part of that framework.”

The EPA’s 2022 Memorandum was created to accelerate progress in controlling nutrient pollution in the nation's waters, according to the agency. One of its strategies has been to “deepen collaborative partnerships with agriculture,” including expanding “engagements with agricultural stakeholders and highlighting their innovation and successes in reducing nutrient loads to waterbodies.”

Briggs said these types of engagements encourage the collaborative efforts that have already been happening on the ground.

"Inside the memorandum's nutrient framework, (the EPA) also notes they want the states to lead this effort, and that's important because we don't want that federal one size fits all regulation,” she said.

Briggs added that it’s incredibly important for state, local, regional, and federal entities to work together.

“Unfortunately, for so long, we have seen a distrust in a lot of these collaborations, so, we're asking farmers to collaborate with environmentalists, and with government entities,” she said. “Building that trust is very important right now and we need to work in a collaborative fashion. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but that doesn't mean we can't take a moment to celebrate the successes that we've already seen.

Crain said communication and collaboration among federal, state, and local entities are crucial to create change for the better and achieving sustainable goals.

"There are numerous entities in Kentucky making positive changes in helping reduce nitrate levels," she said. "One group helping to make a positive change is the Kentucky Agriculture Science and Monitoring Committee (KASMC.) This group was created in 2009 and has well over 25 members and it represents a wide range of federal, state, and local academic institutions, the agriculture industry, as well as producers.”

Members of this group collectively coordinate resources and expertise to address the agricultural science and water quality monitoring needs in Kentucky, Crain noted.

"This group is committed to providing sound, unbiased scientific data that effectively balance socioeconomic and environmental issues to promote sustainable agriculture and improve water quality in Kentucky," she said.

 Furches said that as new technologies are being developed every day to help further water quality efforts, it’s just as important to get positive, accurate information out to quantify the positive impact agriculture has on the environment.

“While we await the next big thing to come along,  from a technology or environmental perspective,  we should continue our efforts to let a sometimes misinformed public know just what we do on the farm that is climate-smart, what efforts we are making to lessen the inputs we use, and the desire we have to move our industry forward, protecting our natural resources, as we continue to feed our neighbors down the street, across the country, and throughout the world,” she said.



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