A New Agriculture Movement

Update: Take action on nitrate pollution here.

The exploding use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer in post World War II agriculture generated an agricultural boom in California and throughout the US. Today seven of the top ten agricultural counties in the US are located in California and in 2010, California agriculture generated $37.5 billion in sales. 

But that boom also created serious water quality problems that continue today. Runoff from agricultural fields washes pesticides, sediment and nutrients into our lakes, rivers and streams. DDT, Diedlrin, Diazonin, Malathion, Chlorpyrifos – many of these toxic chemicals have been banned for years, but are still present in our waterways. Small rural communities are disproportionately impacted because they lack the resources to treat or replace their water supply and because they are almost wholly dependent upon groundwater.

A report prepared for the State Water Board by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences highlights the link between contaminated groundwater and agriculture. The report looks at two of the most impacted groundwater aquifers in the state and makes some troubling findings:

  • Nitrate problems will likely worsen for several decades as nitrogen that has already been applied to crops makes its way into the deep groundwater that public water systems use for their water supply.
  • Agricultural fertilizers and animal wastes are by far the largest regional sources of nitrate in groundwater, contributing 96% of the nitrate loading to groundwater in these agricultural regions.
  • Roughly 254,000 people are currently at risk for nitrate contamination. Of these, about 30,000 rely upon private wells that are not regulated - many of these residents have no idea that their water supply is unsafe.
  • If nitrate buildup in groundwater continues at its current rate, 80% of the population in these areas could be affected by contamination by 2050.

map of wells with nitrates exceeding MCLThis is not the first report establishing the link between fertilizer use and groundwater contamination. However, little has been done to regulate agricultural pollution even though reported contamination has been increasing for decades. Agriculture is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act and, until recently, California agencies responsible for protecting water quality also gave agriculture pollution a pass.

That is about to change. In California, state and regional water boards are developing regulations that will reduce fertilizer use and protect both ground and surface water. The Central Coast Water Board adopted a program on March 15 that will require monitoring add protection of groundwater; the Central Valley will consider their first programs later this year.

Learn more about the Central Coast program.

It's time for a new agriculture, one that supports and sustains water quality for our communities

Best management practices need to be adopted on a large scale to protect community drinking water supplies. Regulation can help drive the technology and assistance programs needed to make these programs accessible to farmers.

Recent scientific reports show that applying current best management practices can reduce nitrogen pollution from farm and livestock operations by 30 percent to 50 percent. They include managing fertilizer timing, optimizing fertilizer use, and implementing wetlands, winter cover crops and streamside vegetation to soak up excess nitrogen.

State and Federal agencies need to resuscitate their assistance programs, including;

  • UC Cooperative Extensions. Like every secondary education institution, this program that provides technical assistance to farmers has been decimated by budget cuts;
  • Fertilizer Research and Education Program. This was created after a report in 1989 established the link between nitrates in groundwater and agriculture. It’s a research and education program funded by a fee on commercial fertilizers- and run by a committee dominated by the fertilizer industry. That needs to change..
  • Farm Bill. The Farm bill is being re-authorized, and Clean Water Action is part of the Health Waters Coalition, a group of water agencies and environmental organizations that has asked Congress to target conservation funding in the Federal Farm bill to reduce nutrient pollution.

The local food movement provides a great example of how local action can create change on a large scale. It is part of an exciting shift in how Californians think about and nurture sustainable agriculture. The Clean Water movement is just as ambitious. We want all agriculture to implement practices that make them better stewards of the environment and better neighbors to the local communities who share their water supplies. These two movements can and should move forward together.

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